There is something marvellous about returning home at the end of a long trip…

… just as there is something inherently bittersweet about leaving a place that you ended up calling home.

A real Basilisk running from somewhere. Or running towards something. Or maybe both.

Reporting live, from Schiphol airport. (Note: most of this post was drafted in Basel airport, if you want the correct info).

I actually enjoy travelling, I find it calming to be at the airport ages in advance, sitting down with an overpriced coffee and a book. I just purchased Game of Thrones, beware I will become one of those “I’ve read the book”-snobs. Wait, I already was one of those, just not for GoT.

It’s not the first time I’m leaving a place. I have spent two months in Switzerland, and for the past two weeks people have been asking me if I am happy to be going back to Dundee. And like those other times when I was leaving a home, the answer is: “I don’t know, a bit I guess.” Of course I’m happy be going back. It won’t be 30 degrees in Scotland (seriously, I’m not cut out for warm weather, and I sincerely disliked getting searched at security after carrying my heavy bag around and feeling a bit sweaty). I will be back in my own room, in my own bed, back with my friends.

But then on the other hand, I’ve had a wonderful two months. I’ve made a lot of friends in Basel. And it had started to feel like home.

I have learned a lot, mostly about handling stress and deadlines, about how things work in another lab, how to assertive about what you need and when you need it. I have met the most wonderful people. I have met up with friends that I hadn’t seen for months, or years even. I’ve travelled around, I’ve gotten a tan and seen a lot of sun (I know I live in the “Sunniest city of Scotland” but I think this was the most summer I will see this year). In short it was a superb experience. But suddenly it was already time to go, just when I got the hang of how to conduct my experiments, and just when I started to figure out where all the cool spots in the city were.

Maybe, two months was just too short.

One of the last nights I spent like a local Baslerin. With a beer by the riverside. I didn't swim in the river like everyone else, but I did get my feet wet!
One of the last nights I spent like a local Baslerin. With a beer by the riverside. I didn’t swim in the river like everyone else, but I did get my feet wet!

So I am a bit sad to go. There are things I will miss. But I’m glad to be going back as well, get back to the other aspects of my project, not having to attend meetings over Skype (quite often I just miss half the conversation, if Skype even holds up for the whole time). Have an after work beer in Duke’s. You know, back to the normal things.

Bye Basel. I promise I will be back.

View from the top of the Münster in Basel.
View from the top of the Münster in Basel.
Quasimodo's friends were there too!
Quasimodo’s friends were there too!
Basilisk fountains all over Basel. I will miss these dragon-winged chickens.
Basilisk fountains all over Basel. I will miss these dragon-winged chickens.

*Title slightly adjusted from a Lemony Snicket quote about returning home and tuna fish. The more you know.

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

Competition, conversation and collaboration

Last weekend I moved to Basel for a two month impersonation of “guest researcher” in a nanobiology lab.

Before I even get to the point, I want to say that Basel is awesome. Except for the evening I arrived, the weather has been the perfect example of “Spring is in the air” and Basel’s traditional emblem and guardian creature is a Basilisk. First of all, this city has a guardian creature. Second of all, this creature appears in one of my favourite books (I was going to say in my favourite septology but I’m pretty sure that’s not a word, so I decided to refer to Newt Scamander’s Fantastic Beasts and where to find them instead). A quick look at the various statues scattered around the city – most of them spouting water – as well as the wikipedia page – I’m such a professional -, taught me that unlike my expectations of a giant snake living in sewage under girls bathrooms, a basilisk looks more like a dragon with a bird’s head. It does still have Medusa-like statue making abilities or killing-at-a-glance powers (depending on the source) and a weakness for weasels/Weasleys. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure the emblem of Dundee involves dragons and that of Scotland in general has a unicorn. I sure know how to pick my magical creatures. (That of my home town is a boring old swan though…)

In any case, moving to a new lab, albeit for only two months, reminds me of one of the things I love about being in science (as far as I can call my current career “being in science”. A friend of mine basically covered this same topic in her blog recently and I’ll probably just plagiarise repeat some of what she said, but one of the things I love is moving around for conferences, lab visits or even just a new job (as I have for my PhD) to not only explore the world but also explore the minds of all the amazing people I encounter. I might be because I’m still quite young (no need to settle down yet), adventurous at heart (always moved around a bit) and get amazing opportunities (an international and interdisciplinary PhD), but I also believe that the future of science lies in international, collaborative and interdisciplinary research. Also, it’s surprisingly refreshing to pack all you basic needs in one suitcase and just step on a plane.

The thing is, I’ve heard disconcerting stories about research groups not willing to present unpublished work at conferences in fear their ideas will be stolen. Or people naming collaborators as reviewers when submitting papers, while steering clear of their competitors. Science seems to exist in an atmosphere of suspicion and nepotism (though I like the Dutch word vriendjespolitiek – literally friends politics – better) where results and ideas are only shared with collaborators but hidden from competitors.

Of course there’s merit in a bit of healthy competition, it drives people to be ambitious and bring out the best in themselves, but as it is becoming increasingly clear that science is no longer a one-man’s-job (though my friend that I mentioned earlier is well on her way of becoming a homo universalis), I am supporter of more collaborative and open science. I for one have had great ideas by conversing with other people, inside and outside my field of research (and so we bring in the aspect of interdisciplinary research as well). Bouncing ideas off each other, seeing different points of view and geeking out during lunch breaks brings out the best of us, or at least of me.

Well, in any case, I am glad to be here in Basel, these first few days have already been amazing and mind opening and I’m sure there are many more inspiring moments to come.

I’ll leave you with this quite funny looking basilisk. It doesn’t have any jet black scales or horcrux-destroying fangs, but I’d still not look in the eye…

I want to wake up in the city that never sleeps…

Originally posted on 2 Oct 2014

I went to New York last week.

Before I went to the City, I went to Rochester. Apparently, Rochester has quite some optics going on, with the Institute of optics, a few university spin offs and small companies, giving me the opportunity to turn a personal trip into something slightly more professional. I didn’t though.

I did go to the George Eastman house. George Eastman was a rather peculiar and impressive person. He founded the Eastman Kodak Company about 20 years after he dropped out of school. He chose the name “Kodak” because it sounded good in every language and has the same letters to start and begin with. He was known to throw legendary parties in his big mansion. He used his fortune to establish a number of schools and academies. He loved art and music and hunting, there were a lot of paintings and dead stuffed animal parts and even an organ in his house. I’m pretty sure he needed a whole list of adjectives to adequately describe him.

Then, at the age of 77 years, he wrote this note:

image

and shot himself in the heart.

Strange man.

Unfortunately, Eastman Kodak Company (also known as Kodak), is not doing too well lately. Even though Kodak engineer Steven Sasson invented the first digital still camera. It was bit and bulky and looked like this:

image

but I’m sure it was innovative. You would think the invention of digital camera technology would put you right up there with the big shots. But it might have been one of those bad predictions. “There’s no real market for digital photography.” Right.

Anyway, if you’re ever in Rochester, the George Eastman house is definitely worth a visit!

On another note, I learned the other day that Rockefeller centre in NYC has science going on in it. If only I’d known, I just went up to the roof and enjoyed a magnificent almost-midnight view of the city… 😉

image

Pictures cannot do it justice.

By the end of the week, I’d decided that I love New York and that I want to live there someday. I’m pretty sure I’m the very first person ever to have that dream.