Inspiration. If you would ask me why I became a scientist, this word would pretty much nail it down. By this I mean that I am inspired by science, inspired to do science—and that at critical points in my development, the inspiration of others has inspired my choices.

To be honest, I never really liked school. Not because I had difficulties or didn’t have friends, but because I didn’t enjoy learning stuff by heart and reciting it correctly in class to get a good grade. Oftentimes, as I struggled to master basic data and facts, I found I missed important background information.

I’m a microbiologist now, but the inspiration that led me to science came from an unexpected direction: a high school teacher of German literature. Classes with him were different from what I had known before: no hard-core learning of facts but, instead, a journey through the development, causes, and outcomes of certain events. Students often gave short talks in his class, developing small topics and presenting them to the other students.

This was unusual. In most of my high school classes, the place in front of the desk belonged to the teacher and to the teacher alone. The teachers were the creators; the students were the consumers. Being able to sit at the teacher's desk and to give a talk in front of an audience of classmates was really something special. It had a huge impact on my scientific career.


Courtesy of François Mayer
François Mayer

My German literature teacher did something very unusual with his class: shadowboxing. At the beginning of every class we would all do some sports in the classroom for 5 minutes: sit-ups, jumping over tables and chairs, squats, and, as the icing on the cake, shadowboxing. Now let me tell you, that was fun. Of course, at that time I didn’t really understand why we were doing it, but in retrospect I consider my teacher a genius. After 5 minutes of engaging in physical activity, everyone was absolutely awakened and energized to delve into the arts.

As important as shadowboxing was, it wasn't the only thing that mattered. This teacher had an immense enthusiasm about everything his students did, including the talks we gave in front of the class. Later, when I was studying biology at university, this experience in my high school German literature class helped me overcome my fear of giving scientific talks.

I was still at the university when I learned that my German literature teacher had died as a consequence of multiple sclerosis. My decision to focus on microbial pathogenicity mechanisms affecting human health and disease was influenced by his passing. Every time I give a talk now, I think of my high school teacher and how enthusiastic and proud he would be if he knew that one of his students is pursuing an academic science career.

A teacher can have a huge impact on students, irrespective of discipline or career path. Inspiring students during their school time is a tough challenge, and sometimes, unorthodox methods such as shadowboxing may be required to open students’ minds. It is worth the effort.

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François Mayer studied biology at the Technical University in Braunschweig, Germany, and did his Ph.D. thesis in microbiology at the Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology e.V., Hans-Knöll-Institute, in Jena, Germany. This month he started a postdoc in microbial pathology mechanisms in the same laboratory, led by professor Bernhard Hube.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1300224