“Science is often thought of as a lonely profession,” observed Nobel Laureate and Westinghouse STS alum Walter Gilbert at the Society’s first ever alumni conference. “But it’s actually a very social thing. We feel a social involvement to develop things for the benefit of others and other scientists.”
This community dimension of science was spotlighted as Science Talent Search alumni gathered the morning after the 75th Anniversary Gala for panels with Nobel Prize recipients, inventors of CRISPR/Cas9, and best-selling authors at the Intel STS Alumni Conference on March 16, 2016.
The conference included multiple discussions with distinguished panelists, including Nobel Prize Laureates and women STEM leaders, and featured speeches by top scientists.
“STS has had such staying power through the years,” said Maya Ajmera, the President & CEO of Society for Science & the Public and the publisher of Science News.
The Nobel Laureate panel, moderated by Joe Palca, a science correspondent at National Public Radio, included:
- Walter Gilbert, a Westinghouse STS 1949 finalist, Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, and a Nobel Prize recipient in Chemistry in 1980.
- Martin Karplus, a Westinghouse STS 1947 finalist, Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, and a Nobel Prize recipient in Chemistry in 2013.
- Frank Wilczek, a Westinghouse 1967 finalist, Professor of Physics at MIT, and a Nobel Prize recipient in Physics in 2004.
The Nobel Laureates discussed what makes a great scientist and how to transition from studies to creating.
“I was driven by a desire to find new knowledge,” Walter Gilbert said. “We don’t invent by pursuing traditional paths.” Scientists also don’t have to remain fixed on one subject, he told the audience. “You can change what you’re doing to follow your interests.”
Walter called it a “terrible mistake” for a scientist to feel they’ve been trained in something and have to stick with it. “You’ve learned a fundamental ability to solve problems,” he said.
The transition from student to creator is difficult, Frank Wilczek admitted. And having early success, like through the Intel STS competition, encourages you through rough patches, he said.
One question posed was what makes a great scientist? The panelists agreed that curiosity, persistence, and the drive to find or create something new are crucial.
“Having faith in yourself is very important, faith in spite of discouragement,” Martin Karplus added.
Joe Palca asked the panel why they decided to come to the conference, why they returned to STS?
“It was touching to get back,” Frank Wilczek said. “It’s a wonderful experience to get back in touch with one’s own past and see one is part of a community that goes on.”
Being picked as one of the 40 Science Talent Search finalists opens you up to a world of people who really love science, Walter Gilbert said. “You’ve generally been the one science nerd. But becoming one of the 40, you suddenly find there’s a world of people who are your equals and kin. That’s an inspiring part of this process.”
The Nobel Laureates also discussed the loneliness of the sciences.
Frank Wilczek said, “If you think of yourself as part of a community, it’s a much richer and more inspiring vision of life.”