Alchemy experiments aren't likely to win a Nobel Prize anytime soon, but that doesn't mean there isn't a magic formula for figuring out what makes Nobel-winning scientists so successful. Science Careers spoke to several of the most recent recipients of the awards in physics, chemistry, and medicine, and identified many elements they all share. Learn from their experiences and advice and you, too, could one day transmute your endeavors into Nobel gold.
First of all -- not that you can do much about it now -- if this crop of Nobel winners is any indication, it helps to have scientists for parents. Brian Schmidt, an astrophysicist at the Australian National University Mount Stromlo and Sliding Spring Observatories in Canberra who won the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics for his role in the discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, was born to parents who were undergraduates at the University of Montana in Missoula. He grew up watching his dad pursue a graduate degree in biology.
"I remember my father starting his Ph.D. I remember him finishing his Ph.D.," he says. "My dad would have to babysit me while working on his thesis, so I really got to see science up close and personal from a very young age."
Similarly, Bruce Beutler, an immunologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas who won the 2011 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for discovering how endotoxins activate the immune system, says helping his father work in his genetics lab gave him an early advantage. "When I was in my early teens, about 14 or 15, my father let me work in his lab, doing very simple things at first but eventually learning rather complicated things," Beutler says. "Just being really familiar with the lab was a great help."
With that in mind, remember the name Noa Perlmutter. She's the daughter of Saul Perlmutter, an astrophysicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, who shares the physics Nobel with Schmidt. Noa is only 8 years old, but Perlmutter says he is already trying to instill in her a scientific way of looking at the world. "I tell her a lot about things that I hear about that sound interesting and discuss with her the approach to asking questions about the world that scientists have," he says. This scientific approach to questioning, he says, is extremely valuable "as a way of asking questions with some degree of rigor and [a] methodology for telling when you're fooling yourself. I hope that will put her in good stead no matter whether she becomes a scientist in the traditional sense or not."
Make no little plans
After choosing the right parents, the most common advice among this year's Nobelists was to choose the right questions: Ask big ones. It's important to take risks, Beutler says, and not to be content with the limits of your field's knowledge. "Don't be conservative and timid. Don't set out to make incremental advances," he says. "Do something very important. Choose a problem that you'd be very proud to solve."
Schmidt shares this opinion, adding that while incremental steps are necessary for science to function, focusing on baby steps is no way to earn your keep in the lab, let alone a Nobel Prize. That goes doubly for scientists at the beginning of their career, he says: You have to ask deeply meaningful questions and not be afraid to fail.
"Especially when you're young, you have to take risks. You can't do a safe, boring project," he says. "That's a safe way to have a job, but not a safe way to keep a job, because it's not going to get you a permanent position anywhere in the world. ... Those who aren't satisfied with that need to take risks, they need to take on projects that may not pan out. … That's how you get the opportunity to ensure some chance of something big happening."
When you do achieve something big and surprising -- the kind of shocking, foundation-rocking science that wins Nobel Prizes -- there's a good chance you'll encounter resistance from those whose research you're overturning, says Daniel Shechtman, a materials science professor at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. He won the 2011 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his discovery of quasicrystals, crystalline structures that lack the usual rotational symmetry of ordinary crystal lattices.
When Shechtman made his discovery in 1982, while on sabbatical at what was then the U.S. National Bureau of Standards, many colleagues denounced his findings. He says his own lab manager called him a disgrace. Two-time Nobel laureate chemist Linus Pauling called him a "quasi-scientist." But Shechtman never doubted himself and as more and more scientists reproduced his findings -- and as his detractors eventually retired or died -- materials science embraced the existence of quasicrystals unreservedly. Today, labs across the world have produced hundreds of different quasicrystals and students routinely learn about them from textbooks. Young scientists, he says, should become so thoroughly versed in their field that even if the biggest names around belittle or insult their work, they have the confidence to see it through.
"When you become a scientist, make sure you become an expert in something," Shechtman advices. "Know what to expect, know what not to expect. Be such an expert that when you make an observation and you check your results time and again, and you are sure you are correct, you can stand tall."
Schmidt, Perlmutter, and their colleague Adam Riess, a Johns Hopkins University astrophysicist, faced similar scrutiny for their discovery, which reversed cosmologists' common knowledge about the expansion of the universe and provided evidence for the existence of dark matter. "It was certainly scary," Schmidt says. "We were young scientists and it just seemed silly that we were going to go out and tell people that 75% of the universe was missing and that there was this weird stuff that makes gravity repulsive rather than attractive. … We had a short debate within the team and ultimately said, 'We know this is likely wrong, but we can't prejudge the universe. The universe does what it does and it's our job to measure it. It's our duty as scientists to publish it.' "
When it comes to reporting findings, whether they reverse the direction of the whole universe or merely tilts our knowledge of it slightly, being a good communicator is almost as important as doing the work in the first place, Beutler says. Whether it's speaking with colleagues in the break room or at conferences, putting together a manuscript, or speaking with the media, success tends to follow those who can clearly explain their findings and big ideas. "I've noticed among my fellows that there's a pretty strong correlation between verbal ability and success," he says. "Those who can speak very persuasively and who can write well, those who are sort of writing their papers in an exploratory way, those are the ones who tend to succeed."
The early bird gets the Nobel
Of course, a silver tongue is no substitute for hard work and determination, Beutler says. Scientists who attempt to make their careers mirror a typical 9:00 to 5:00 day job will never find the golden profile of Alfred Nobel hanging around their necks, he says. "People who work 5 days a week and who take long vacations and tell themselves that that’s just fine -- they're not going to finish first," Beutler says. "I never let a weekend go by when I was working on something important, which was almost always. I see labs sometimes that are just kind of empty on weekends, and I find that sort of appalling."
But now that he's already won the Nobel, he can take it just a little bit easy, right? Wrong. "Even now, I try to be on guard not to relax too much, because that temptation is always there as you grow more secure. But the more relaxed you are, the less useful you are."
Yet, some Nobel-winning scientists choose to channel their work ethic into pursuits outside the lab. Schmidt, for example, owns and manages a 2.7-acre vineyard in Canberra that produces 2500 bottles of pinot noir a year. Since winning the prize, he's discovered that it confers advantages he didn't anticipate. "I've been recommending to all my colleagues here in the wine district that they should go for a Nobel Prize, because I promise, it does a lot for your business."
Michael Price is a staff writer for Science Careers.