A Nobel Cause

So, the news is out. At least in terms of the sciency Nobel Prizes (sorry Economic Sciences, you don’t really count here), the 2018 Laureates have all been announced, so here’s a short overview of what was Nobel-Prize-Worthy this year:

1. Nobel Prize in Chemistry (press release)

And… *drumroll* the Nobel prize in Chemistry goes to Prof. Frances H. Arnold, Prof. George Smith and Sir Gregory Winter for their contributions to protein biology, where they all worked on directed evolution of proteins.

Directing protein evolution is used to create proteins with a specific function that can be used in biofuel, pharmaceutical, and medicine manufacturing. Half of the Nobel Prize was awarded to Prof. Arnold, who works on directed evolution of enzymes (proteins that are used to accelerate or direct chemical reactions). The other half, that of Prof. Smith and Sir Winter, celebrated a method called phage display. This process uses viruses to develop specific proteins that can be used for medical purposes.

My personal excitement for this prize:
Well, Prof. Arnold is a professor in bioengineering, which is, in my opinion, an underacknowledged field, so that’s pretty cool. And this has nothing to do with the fact that I’ve studied bioengineering. Nothing at all.


2. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (press release)

The Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Jim Allison and Tasuku Honjo for their work in cancer therapy. By now, the concept of “immune therapy” may not sound extremely new anymore. However, just think about how amazing it is: someone’s immune system (in other words, an attack system that is already present in your body) can be used to fight cancer cells (which isn’t really straightforward – cancer cells originate from normal cells so are not detected as “foreign” by the immune system).
My personal interest in this prize: 
First of all, yay for biology completely highjacking the Nobel Prizes. But on the topic: radiotherapy and chemotherapy are both notorious to have a huge amount of side effect. By effectively using the natural defense system of the body, immune therapy usually is a lot less taxing on a patient, which I think is a laudable goal.

3. The Nobel Prize in Physics (press release)

*Final Drum Roll, please*

The Nobel Prize in Physics is all about lasers (Did you know that LASER is an acronym for “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation? Well, you do know). Arthur Ashkin was honors for his development of optical tweezers (which I will simply explain by referring you to my fabulous friend who has worked with optical tweezers herself) and the other half was awarded to Donna Strickland and Gerard Mourou for their work on laser pulses. The most known application of laser pulses is in laser eye surgery.

My personal input to this prize:
I have two thoughts, first, how has this not won a Nobel Prize yet? Actually, to be honest, I think that quite often when the Nobel Prizes, which is probably why they get a Nobel Prize in the first place. The other thought has to do with the same reason why this prize has been in the press a lot: it has been 55 years since a woman won a physics Nobel prize. Only two other women have a Nobel Prize in Physics to their name: Marie Skłodowska-Curie (obviously!) and Maria Goeppert-Mayer (go google her, now).

Some thoughts on women and Nobel Prizes

Historically, science has always been pretty male-dominated. And even now, women are underrepresented in research: worldwide the female share of persons employed in R&D is approximately 30% and I will not even get into high-level academics here.

In terms of Nobel Prizes, as of this year, there have been 49 women who have won Nobel Prizes (that’s all of them), compared to 844 men. In the sciency fields, five women have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (2.8%), twelve have won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (5.6%), and – as stated – three have won the Nobel Prize in Physics (1.4%). Actually, only one woman has won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (also 1.4%), but that doesn’t really count as a science anyway!

In any case, none of the Nobel Prizes have a good track record, and it makes me a bit sad that “First woman Physics Nobel winner in 55 years” is a news headline, but ah well, we may have come some part of the way but we are not there yet.

And until we are, having positive role models of all shapes and sizes and sexes for STEM fields is crucial. As a wannabe science-communicator, or science-populizer if you will, one of my aims is exactly that. So that every child can look up to a scientist and think “that could be me!”

And – even if I say so myself – I think that’s a pretty noble cause.


How to win a Nobel Prize

I’ve mentioned a while ago that I’d write a post focussing on how to win a Nobel Prize. Recently, a 10 simple rules paper (something I mentioned in that same post) was published on that exact subject, reminding me that I should step on it and write already.

So, here we go, inspired by conversations with friends and that paper I just mentioned (1), some guidelines on how to win a Nobel Prize.

  1. Eat chocolate and drink milk.
    It has been suggested a few years ago that the suspicious relation between amount of Nobel Prize winners in Switzerland might be related to chocolate consumption (2). Obviously, as a Belgian (though the chocolate consumption of Belgians seems to be suspiciously low) and chocolate fiend, I found this very interesting. A follow up study suggested that the consumption of milk (3) might also play a role, something I don’t expect to be a problem either. In the end, both articles were more of an illustration of how correlation and causality can easily get mixed up in (amateur) statistics, rather than encouraging people to stock up on milk and coco. Eating habits aren’t very likely to increase your chances in winning a Nobel Prize, but one can hope that loving chocolate can’t hurt…

    Correlation between Countries' Annual Per Capita Chocolate Consumption and the Number of Nobel Laureates per 10 Million Population (2).
    Correlation between Countries’ Annual Per Capita Chocolate Consumption and the Number of Nobel Laureates per 10 Million Population (2).
    Correlation between countries’ annual per capita milk consumption and the number of Nobel laureates per 10 million population (3).


  2. Choose your contacts wisely 
    Nowadays, most Nobel Prizes are won by a group of 3 people. Additionally, most science is done through collaborations nowadays. Different backgrounds, expertise, points of view and even different disciplines mixed together, provide for good science and innovative discoveries. So collaborate, but not with too many people. If you’re not yet in a position to collaborate (I assume that’s easier once you’re a principle investigator), choose your workplace wisely. Perhaps working in the same institution or even directly in the laboratory of a Nobel Prize laureate and gain from his or her experiences, will provide you with the inspiration to win your own Prize. For example, 9 staff members of the Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratory in Cambridge have won Nobel Prizes. And if you can’t find such a position, another strategy is to pick your family wisely. Sometimes children of Nobel Prize winners go on to win the prize themselves, as has been shown already seven times. But since choosing what family your born into isn’t exactly practical, perhaps consider marrying a prospective Nobel Prize winner, as four married couples have won the prize, as was the case for the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine last year (1).
  3. Serendipity.
    A topic I have brought up before but sheer luck, or a certain degree of serendipity, seem to have an effect on your chances of winning a Nobel Prize. Andre Geim and colleagues were messing around with some scotch tape and that led to a Nobel Prize, and penicillin is a similar example. Sometimes things going wrong are not such a bad thing. Often great discoveries are made “by accident”. If your experiment doesn’t go as expected, perhaps it’s time to re-analyse: is it through faulty protocols or maybe because of wrong assumptions. Challenge everything you do, ask questions, and if something cool and unexpected happens, maybe this is something worth looking in to?
  4. Life sciences are the bomb.
    The article (1) mentions that Biology is the field in if you’re aiming for a noble prize. There’s still so much to be discovered in biology, and it’s forever changing (evolution, my dear Watson). It often needs interdisciplinary approaches, making it easy to do collaborative research (see point 2). And there are two Nobel Prize categories you can aim for, so more chance!
  5. Just have fun.
    But most importantly (and strongly emphasised in (1)), don’t aim for a Nobel Prize. Science shouldn’t be about winning prizes or aiming for fame. Science and research is about curiosity, wanting to know how the world works, finding solutions that can help humans and the earth, and most of all, about having fun. You should be in research because that is what you love. If you feel a great sense of accomplishment when you successfully finish an experiment or make a beautiful and informative microscopy image, if you squeal like a fan girl when you read about novel scientific breakthroughs, if you make plans with your friends to do “Friday afternoon experiments” (yes, that’s doing research just because you want to), then go into research. Perhaps you’ll win a Nobel Prize one day. Probably not. And who cares, you’re doing what you love.


Related to that, Switzerland is great. In the week I’m busy busy busy working, in the weekends I feel like I’m on holiday, riding on boats on Zürichsee and whatnot. In this country where people actually stop to let you cross the road or hold tram doors because they think you’re trying to catch it, I feel quite at home. Maybe it’s because of the wonderful weather and the delicious chocolate, but the first weeks have been great. I think I will enjoy my time here.

A view of the Alpes and the lake of Zürich (taken on the lake)
A view of the Alps and the lake of Zürich (taken on the lake!)


References and Inspirations:

(1) Roberts RJ (2015) Ten Simple Rules to Win a Nobel Prize. PLoS Comput Biol 11(4): e1004084. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004084

(2) Messerli FH (2012) Chocolate consumption, cognitive function, and Nobel Laureates. N Engl J Med 2012; 367:1562-1564. doi:10.1056/NEJMon1211064

(3) Linthwaite S, Fuller GN (2013) Milk, chocolate and Nobel prizes, Pract Neurol13:63. doi:10.1136/practneurol-2012-000471

You know you’ve worked too long in a lab when…

Today I came across this list of signs that you have been working too long in a lab. I would even say it applies to working too long in a certain branch of science, or doing research for too long.

But, slightly plagiarising inspired by that list, here are some things that I have noticed are indications that you are working in a lab, any research lab, but mostly a biology/biochemical lab. Well, let’s just say that they’re indications of me at the moment.

You know you’re doing PhD research in Life Sciences when…

  • … you sometimes have to run from social activities, such as lunch, because you’re busy with a protocol.
  • … you’re no longer scared of rodents.
  • … no one of your family or non-work friends can really explain what you do. And face it, most of your work friends can’t either. Can you, come to think of it?
  • … you can’t watch CSI/The Big Bang Theory/Any SciFi movie/… without cursing at at least one scientific inaccuracy.
  • … you use acronyms for everything and never stop to explain what they mean. Do you even still know?
    (APC… Adenomatous Polysomethingamajingy?)
  • … you sometimes have a headache at the end of the day from looking down a microscope/at a computer screen for too long.
  • … you slightly disappointed that you don’t have to wear your safety equipment all the time. You actually think a lab coat and safety goggles look cool.
  • … while choosing an outfit to where in the morning, you make sure the skirt/dress is long enough so it won’t look like you’re wearing nothing/just tights under your lab coat.
  • … you want dry ice or liquid nitrogen at home to do silly experiments with.
  • … you want parafilm at home because it’s obviously really useful.
  • … you nudging friends to do “Friday afternoon experiments” with you. (Oh, that’s how you win a Noble Prize, by the way.)
  • … you try to make the best out of failed experiments.
  • … you find a way to use LEGO for science, so you can go shopping on Pick a Brick.
  • … you feel slightly exhilarated travelling on public transportation with some samples, even though they in no way can start a epidemic ever.
  • … you’ve been in the lab so long that you’re afraid to ask what people are talking about when they say HET or Min (and eventually realise they’re really obvious things).
  • … you start a blog about it. (Wow, meta…)

Just to illustrate a few of these points:

Sometimes a failed experiment can result in something beautiful.
(It’s just crystallised salts. No biggie.)

Image taken on a Nikon eclipse TS100 at the University of Dundee.

How Lego had the perfect dimensions for exactly what I wanted to do.

I love my job!

But I was like this before I started this PhD…

How to write a highly cited paper

Originally posted on 31 Oct 2014

This week on Nature.com: an overview of the 100 top cited papers, according to Thompson Reuters’ web of science database. Surprisingly, publications on nobel-prize winning findings aren’t at the top.

Most of the top 100 most cited papers, are actually methods papers.

Which leads to the conclusion, that if you want to write an amazing paper that will send your author index skyrocketing, you should find a new, efficient and ground-breaking protocol that will be used by everybody in your field. And don’t work in a small niche field, that won’t help you one bit.

So, invent a new methodology everybody will just have to use, wait a few decades, and bam, you might get yourself a first-author spot on the honour list of top-cited papers in the world. Wouldn’t that be great?

Next post, how to win a Nobel Prize, or something else on the long list of things that I haven’t achieved and never will.

Rephrase: Next post, how to win a Nobel Prize, or something else on the long list of things that I haven’t achieved yet.

On a side note, I recently came across a bunch of “how to” articles titled “10 simple rules“, most of them written by Philip E. Bourne. Quite an entertaining read for during your coffee