Innovation/Global Risk 

How to Win a Nobel Prize II

By Shlomo Maital

 

 

 Prof. Avram Hershko, Technion 

 In my Oct. 7 blog, I told the story of how Prof. Dan Shechtman won the Nobel Prize, for his discovery of quasi-crystalline matter.  The formula he used was: 1. Read Jules Verne and dream, and 2. Believe in yourself, and maintain your integrity, if you see something strange, insist that you saw it, despite the nay-sayers, famous ones, who tell you, that you didn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t. 

   I recently had the privilege to interview another Nobel Prize winner from my university, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Prof. Avram Hershko, who won the Nobel Chemistry Prize in 2004 for his discovery of ubiquitin, which holds the key to understanding why cells die.  Based on his discovery, a new drug, Velcade, was developed, which has saved the lives of many thousands of cancer sufferers (including a close American friend of Prof. Hershko).   

  Here is Prof. Hershko’s formula for winning a Nobel, which is somewhat different from Dan Shechtman’s.

  1.  For your research, pick a problem you believe is important, but that is NOT in the mainstream of scientific research.  On his post-doc in the U.S., Hershko found that he was joining a 25-person team, who were mostly focusing on cell division (i.e. cell growth).  He chose to study why cells die, because he thought it was important and because no-body else was interested in studying it.  This is the scientific equivalent of ‘blue oceans’ – seek areas that are not crowded, because research topics already crowded are competitive and likely to be dominated by those with massive resources. 

 2.  Be patient and persistent.  If you choose a hard problem, Hershko notes, you will need to be very patient in understanding the phenomenon under study.  Hershko is a true bench scientist.  When I interviewed him, he was gracious, but in the midst of an experiment…  and he confessed to deeply loving bench work, which the Nobel Prize did not in any way interrupt (except for 6 months of travel on behalf of Technion). 

 3.  Be lucky.  Scientific breakthroughs come often through lucky breaks. But, Hershko cautioned, you need to be prepared for the luck.  When you get unexpected results, often they are tossed out.  Don’t!  Recognize your luck, and look into why those results occurred, against your expectations.  As Pasteur affirmed, “chance favors the prepared mind.”  Prepare your mind.  And keep it open.  Do not allow ‘perceptual blindness’ to prevent you from seeing what really exists.  Shechtman saw something that could not possibly be there.  Hershko saw results that were highly unexpected.  Both had minds open enough to see what was there.

  4.  Stay small.   Nobel Prizes often (though not always) bring the possibility of a flood of new research money.   Prof. Hershko has purposely, and doggedly, kept his lab research small and intimate, so that he can maintain control and his own active leadership.  Size and scale often are bitter enemies of innovation.  By keeping his lab small, Hershko maintains its agility, flexibility and manageability.  He also has maintained his own active bench research, rather than become a ‘manager’ whose name appears on scientific papers but who is not really involved.

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