How to win a Nobel prize

Four scientists reflect on the perks and drawbacks that go hand in hand with winning the most prized prize

October 2, 2014

There can surely be no sweeter sound to a scientist’s ears than the popping of the first champagne cork after receiving the fabled call from the Nobel Committee.

As another set of hopefuls sit staring at the telephone ahead of next week’s announcement of the 2014 Nobel prizewinners in the sciences, we asked four scientists who have taken the call to reflect on its impact on their work and their lives. Was winning a Nobel prize ever an ambition of theirs? How much of a surprise was it? And do they feel that the wait for recognition was too long?

We also wondered whether there are any downsides to winning a Nobel prize. Do laureates resent the demands on their time and do they encounter the jealousy of colleagues or feel the anxiety of impostor syndrome?

The answer to most of these questions appears to be no. But for those hell-bent on finding out for themselves, one message comes through loud and clear: prizes don’t come to those who consciously court them but rather to those whose skilled and determined pursuit of their curiosity catches the eye of Lady Luck. So perhaps your lab fridge could be put to better use than storing bottles of Bollinger.

Venki Ramakrishnan, Nobel prizewinner

I spent a significant proportion of my prize money buying a 19th-century Italian cello for my son

Venki Ramakrishnan
Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2009, shared with Thomas Steitz and Ada Yonath, for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome

We determined the atomic structure of the 30S subunit of the ribosome (the cell’s protein maker) in 2000, and it was clear to me that the ribosome was at least as important as other structures that had won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. But since I was not included among the recipients of the initial prizes awarded for ribosome work, I thought the Nobel Committee would also probably overlook me.

It was never a particular goal of mine to win a Nobel. High school students or undergraduates might sometimes fantasise about winning one, but once they learn about what research involves, few are motivated by prizes. Besides, a strategy to win one would be a fool’s errand because it is impossible to predict success in any big goal, and it is much better to pursue something one finds really interesting, where the day-to-day incremental progress brings pleasure.

But as long as the ribosome work went unrecognised by the Nobel Committee, people would regard me as one of the major contributors to it. I felt that if it was awarded and I was overlooked, my team’s work would be forgotten by the wider community. That is one of the problems with the Nobel prize and its exclusivity: by selecting three winners at most to take the accolades for a breakthrough, it converts a large collaborative enterprise into a sporting contest.

The prize was first awarded in 1901. At that time, there was little communication between scientists, and senior scientists often worked alone, so there was no ambiguity about who had done what. Nowadays, a germ of an idea that is revealed at a meeting quickly travels throughout the world and is immediately acted upon by many different groups. Often students and postdocs contribute key ideas. It would be nice if there were more flexibility in how many people can share the prize, but when I suggested this, one committee member said that by limiting it to three, it was psychologically easier for the ones who had been left out.

In my case, there were others who had worked for a long time in the field and were more established. In terms of advancing understanding, however, I felt our work was certainly comparable to theirs. Our pursuit of determining the structure of the ribosome and, just as importantly, its various functional complexes was very deliberate, and my move from the University of Utah to the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge in 1999 was aimed precisely at allowing me to do it over the long term.

[This move and the work paid off: Ramakrishnan won the Nobel in 2009 and collected one-third of the Skr10 million (£850,000).]

My prize money is entirely gone. It has not changed my lifestyle at all, but it has improved my life and that of my family. I spent about two-thirds of it buying a 19th-century Italian cello for my son, who is a professional musician, paying off the remainder of a mortgage and giving some away. The rest – and some more – was reluctantly but voluntarily given to the US government; I found out a year after winning the prize that, because I was a US citizen, I owed tax on it. The US is the only country other than Eritrea to tax citizens who don’t actually live there. It was particularly ironic in my case because I had had to leave the US and take a large salary cut to obtain long-term support for my work – mainly from the UK government, which, like that of all other major countries, doesn’t tax the prize.

Being a Nobel laureate has not made publishing papers or getting grants easier, and this is a good thing because it shows that science has integrity. I am very happy at the LMB and am not looking to move; I have only considered one job offer briefly, and that was initiated before the prize. Major universities are pretty hard-headed about what you can bring to them in terms of your current research, and those that want someone as a trophy are probably not places where I would want to work.

There are lasting downsides to winning a Nobel prize only if you choose to be distracted from doing what you really want to do. But I did find it quite hard to cope with all the emails I received when my prize was announced. My email had always been fairly private and used almost entirely for scientific correspondence, and I was in the middle of shepherding three important papers through publication. My correspondence with editors was buried among hundreds of emails from random Indians who simply used me as a feel-good factor in much the same way as they would use their cricket team after a victory.

I was also constantly contacted by reporters from India – where I was born and brought up – even though I had said everything I could to leading Indian newspapers (some of which simply made up stuff about my life). So I snapped at one who kept pestering me about whether I was going to accept a directorship of an institute in India. I replied that I had not been offered one and that it would take me only an instant to decline because I was perfectly happy here – and, by the way, why were all these random Indians (and schoolmates who had ignored me during my entire time in school) contacting me? Did they have no sense of invading my privacy?

This email, meant just for him, was published in virtually every newspaper in India and resulted in a barrage of hostile comments. So I clarified that I didn’t mean to offend and added that, in any case, people should take pleasure in scientific discoveries regardless of who made them since nationality was an accident of birth. That last bit didn’t go down well either. But I think most educated and intelligent Indians understand, and I have always had a very warm reception when I visit India.

Some people get the prize relatively late, long after their research has peaked. For them, the renewed attention is welcome and they just travel from one talk to the next enjoying the adulation. For active scientists like me, it is important to be able to say “no”. This can be hard, and I sometimes find myself travelling more than I would like, but I am getting better at it and our lab is currently in a very productive phase. It is important to use the prize as a platform to help science in general, and to persuade governments to make good decisions that are in the long-term public interest. But it is dangerous to use it to promote oneself – that is a quick route to not being taken seriously.

You can aspire to win a second Nobel prize if you get the first relatively young. But to learn a new field and then make groundbreaking contributions takes time. When Fred Sanger (who also worked at the LMB) died last year, a friend asked me whether I had any hopes of emulating his two prizes. Fred had said that it is easier to win a second prize because you have the credentials to get long-term support and a good working environment. I replied that Fred was 40 when he got his first prize for protein sequencing, and then changed fields to nucleic acid sequencing, which got him his second prize. When I was 40, I went on sabbatical (to the LMB) to change fields by learning crystallography, which allowed me to tackle the ribosome.

So actually, I’d got my second prize – it’s just that I’d blown the first one!

Venki Ramakrishnan is deputy director of the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge.

Richard Roberts, Nobel prizewinner

I had given up all hope, so when CNN phoned me to ask how I felt about winning I was elated

Sir Richard Roberts
Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1993, shared with Phillip Sharp, for the discovery of split genes

The main downside of winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1993 was that I became a target of the Unabomber: the mathematician who, between the late 1970s and mid-1990s, sent scores of explosive devices to people involved with modern technology. Fortunately, I was one of the lucky ones who received only a letter rather than a bomb. Nevertheless, the incident proved quite unpleasant as the press descended on my house and surrounded us for several days hoping for an interview. This proved very scary for my kids, who were quite young at the time. It also meant that all our mail was checked routinely by the FBI, resulting in many delays of important correspondence.

It had never been an ambition of mine to win a Nobel prize. I had never really thought about it and, in retrospect, I don’t think it is a sensible ambition as a great deal of luck is essential. We knew that something very special was happening during the formation of messenger RNA in adenovirus – and, hence, in human cells – that was fundamentally different from what went on when bacteria made it. So we knew our work was going to be big, but I don’t ever remember thinking it might be Nobel worthy. However, from the moment that we got the results from the key experiment at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 1977 everyone immediately started talking about the Nobel prize. So winning it immediately seemed realistic: perhaps even a sure thing.

Subsequent events that year made it seem much less certain, though. This was because many other groups also realised that it was prize-worthy and did their best to downplay our contribution and to claim that it was their demonstration of the same mechanism in other systems that was the “real” discovery. That was very disappointing and over the years, it seemed less and less likely that I would ever win – especially when I saw Phil Sharp, who discovered gene splicing at the same time as our group did, winning every prize going.

By 1989 I had given up hope. But that year the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded for something very similar to splicing. At that point, I was asked by Cold Spring Harbor director Jim Watson to write up the events that surrounded my discovery there so he could send it to the Nobel Committee. As a result, I knew in 1990 that I had been nominated. At that point I became certain I would win, and was extremely disappointed in 1990 when I didn’t. By 1992 I had really given up all hope again, so when CNN phoned me up in 1993 to ask me how I felt about winning – the first I had heard about it – it came as a surprise, and I was elated.

It is true that 16 years was a long time to wait, but it is by no means unusual. The time lag is sometimes warranted and sometimes not; so much depends on who is nominating and lobbying for the eventual winner. Also, sometimes the Nobel committees have made mistakes that proved embarrassing, and so recently they have tended to be more conservative.

After the announcement there were a lot of calls and good wishes, and the acceptance ceremony was wonderful in every way. The Swedes throw an excellent party! I did not personally encounter any jealousy, although I am sure there was plenty. There was just one incident of one of my co-workers claiming they should have been on the ticket too. However, that quickly died away. I don’t think the rule forbidding more than three people from sharing one award should be changed. Nobel was fairly clear in his will about his wishes, so going against them would be unfair.

It is very difficult to say whether I deserved the award. Luck is always important in science, but it takes a certain amount of tenacity to follow through on an experimental observation that runs counter to dogma. No one ever thought that eukaryotic messenger RNA formation would involve the extra step of splicing that we discovered, so it was not just a case of confirming someone’s theory.

The prize made a big difference to my life, mainly in the sense that I got invited to do a lot of things that I would never have otherwise done, such as speaking engagements. Also, I met a lot of interesting people whom I would never have otherwise encountered. However, it did not mean an end to my research, nor did I get dragged out for a lot of fundraising, as might have happened had I still been at an academic institute. Perhaps the most useful benefit has been that people are more likely to answer my emails when I use the Nobel appellation. But I had never had any trouble finding good collaborators, and my grant applications have mostly been limited to those for commercialisation, for which my job as chief scientific officer of New England Biolabs has probably had more impact than the prize.

Apart from the Unabomber incident, the other slight downside of winning the prize is that because of the large number of speaking invitations I receive, I have to decline more often than I would really like. On the other hand, it is nice to have such a wide choice. I certainly do feel an obligation to try to use my stature as a laureate in positive ways. For instance, I have been involved in several human rights initiatives, of which the most successful was to help gain the release of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian medical student from a Libyan jail in 2007 after they had been sentenced to death for supposedly spreading HIV among more than 400 children in Benghazi.

I don’t have any aspiration to win another Nobel prize, but my wife would like me to because, she says, then she would know that I am really smart!

Sir Richard Roberts is chief scientific officer at New England Biolabs in Ipswich, Massachusetts.

Harry Kroto, Nobel prizewinner

Some scientists are miserable because they have not won a Nobel prize and they think they deserve to

Sir Harry Kroto
Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1996, shared with Robert Curl and Richard Smalley, for the discovery of fullerenes

When I went into science, the thought of winning prizes never crossed my mind. If it hadn’t worked out well, I would probably have got out and gone into graphic art instead.

I was quite surprised at how well I did. Even before the fullerene discovery, I had done, with co-workers, two very beautiful and elegant pieces of work that opened up the new fields of carbon in space and phosphorus/carbon chemistry and for which I won chemistry prizes. But only after I had done something did I think: “Oh, Professor X has got an award: my stuff is as good as or better than his, so why don’t I have one?”

My colleague Rick Smalley said that we need prizes to motivate people, but no one else I know is motivated by these things. If I had been pursuing prizes, I would never have done the experiment that led to the Nobel because it was a very minor thing and I just thought of it on the spur of the moment while talking to Smalley. He was telling me about a piece of apparatus he had built, and I thought it could solve a little puzzle in stellar chemistry. It verified my hunch, but it also came up with an amazing surprise: a new allotrope of carbon, C60, which I named buckminsterfullerene after the architect/designer Buckminster Fuller, whose geodesic dome at the Montreal Expo in 1967 had given me a clue about what was happening. People who decide to do their science to win something are unlikely to be successful because they will do predictable things. It is the unpredictable research that comes up with most important surprises.

It was immediately apparent, when we discovered it in 1985, that C60 was something very significant – although it took another five years for my group and another German/US group to isolate it. It opened up another new field of chemistry, generating about 1,000 papers a year, and people started saying we might win the “big one”. They thought we had done a beautiful thing, as new allotropes of well-known elements don’t grow on trees.

Some scientists are miserable because they have not won a Nobel prize and they think they deserve to. My attitude was that it would be nice to win it, but I didn’t know what the odds were. If we hadn’t won, I would have thought we were close and a bit unfortunate, but I wouldn’t have felt my life was a disaster. Nevertheless, when our prize was announced in 1996 we were really bowled over.

I don’t feel 11 years was too long to wait. It takes some time to prove discoveries are right and, while all prizes have an element of unfairness, the Nobel committees do a better job than most in identifying people who have done something worthwhile. I know some fantastic scientists who aren’t going to win the prize, but it isn’t just about being the smartest guy on the block: it is also about having good ideas and an interest in a wide range of things.

I feel we all deserved the prize. Smalley developed a fantastic piece of apparatus, I suggested the experiment, and Bob Curl spent 18 months persuading Smalley to do it. For me it was only 10 days’ work, but it was based on a whole load of spectroscopy and radio astronomy that I had been doing over 15 years, which led me to surmise what must be going on in a star and to want to try to simulate the conditions. What we saw had actually been seen twice before, but the experimenters hadn’t put two and two together. At the University of Sussex we spent five years trying to extract C60 and did so before the success of the German/US group was submitted for publication. We were just beaten to the post.

There is an interesting question about whether students should share prizes. I think there is a strong case if they build the apparatus and carry out the experiments. In this case the apparatus was built by a previous generation of students, and I think the three involved in our discovery feel they were very fortunate to inherit the apparatus at just the right time. I also think the rule that no more than three people can share the prize is the right one. It has a heritage, and you have to draw the line somewhere. If you draw it at a team of 10 or more, it becomes a bit ridiculous and the prize would lose its aura.

To my knowledge there was no reaction to our prize from colleagues other than: “Gee, this is great.” The thing about C60 is that it is pretty easy to get some feeling for what we did. It is visually interesting, so although people outside the field might not really understand the chemistry, they get a sense of the beauty of it.

I had always given a lot of chemistry talks because radio astronomy and interstellar molecules are very charismatic coat hangers on which to hang the subject. But after I won the prize I started to do even more. The prize opens up the opportunity to talk to young people about things you feel are important and, to some extent, to speak on behalf of the scientific community. Not all laureates decide to take on that responsibility, but I felt I should.

So I used some of my prize money to set up the Vega Science Trust, which produces and streams free science videos. And, after retiring from Sussex in 2004, I moved to Florida State University because it offered to help me set up GEOSET – Global Educational Outreach for Science, Engineering and Technology – which hosts science videos and presentations by everyone from researchers and teachers at leading universities to high school students.

I had aspired to dedicate more of my time, after retirement, to graphic art. But I still give between 60 and 80 lectures a year around the world. Everyone likes to have a Nobel prizewinner at their conference, and chemistry still needs champions.

Sir Harry Kroto is Francis Eppes Professor of Chemistry at Florida State University.

Tim Hunt, Nobel prizewinner

It’s a wonderful club to belong to because of the exaggerated respect you receive from strangers

Sir Tim Hunt
Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2001, shared with Leland Hartwell and Sir Paul Nurse, for their discoveries of key regulators of the cell cycle

Growing up, scientifically speaking, in Cambridge, I had fairly close contact with several Nobel laureates, past and future. So I did wonder what it might be like to win the prize, and it motivated me to do the most interesting and important work I possibly could. You should surely always be looking out to make a great discovery, but the chances of doing so are obviously rather slim. I didn’t really think (I still don’t) that I was in the league of the Sangers, Watsons, Cricks or Perutzs.

But I knew almost from the day (22 July 1982) that I discovered the cyclin protein – which has a key role in the transition of cells from one stage to another – that I’d stumbled on a revolutionary biological secret that unlocked many mysteries. Nobody in their wildest imaginings thought the disappearance of a protein was how the cell cycle works. But the means were so simple and the discovery so serendipitous that I didn’t really think it was prize-worthy – surely they don’t award Nobel prizes merely for being lucky?

Even just 10 days later, when I wrote a letter home to explain to my laboratory what was going on, I had forgotten why I had done the experiment. It was just one of those idle moment, throat-clearing things. It was a wonderful example of chance favouring prepared minds. Really important discoveries have to be accidental. If you understood perfectly the world as it is, you would never have any more experiments. This is what is so disagreeable to politicians and people who think you can plan things.

Because we understand things so poorly in medicine, the pioneering aspect is very much emphasised. But if I had just published my observation on cyclins and then dropped the topic like a hot potato, I wouldn’t have won the prize. I also had the wit to follow it up fairly successfully. The really amazing thing, I always felt, was that nobody else had made this discovery in the preceding 10 years or so that the techniques I used had been available.

Some years later I knew that I had been nominated for a Nobel prize, but I didn’t think I had a realistic chance, so I didn’t worry about it. The actual announcement came as a complete surprise. It had been 19 years since that first experiment had been made, and 13 years since things had begun to come together properly in 1988. But I don’t think this was too long to wait because actual discoveries are rather trivial and it takes a while for their significance to become established. Of course, Lee Hartwell’s first observations were made in the late 1960s and early 1970s, so that’s a lot longer to wait – but again, although he was the clear pioneer of our modern understanding of cell cycle control, his work did not shed very much light on how things actually worked. The Nobel committees would make a lot of mistakes if they awarded prizes earlier.

When I got the phone call, just 20 minutes before the official announcement, I was shocked, pleased, sceptical and embarrassed. Embarrassed because I’m not the best scientist in the world and our field had some exceptionally able ones. Hartwell and Paul Nurse were obvious recipients of the cell cycle prize, but there were other people who could have got it instead of me. Like all of life, it isn’t really fair. But I encountered very little, if any, overt jealousy.

I disagree with those who say that the rule on only three people sharing a prize should be relaxed. The rules are the rules, and they have worked pretty well for more than a century. I am not sure science in my neck of the woods is any more of a team game now than it ever was – although I have no idea how the physicists at Cern (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) apportion credit.

In the few days following the announcement, the phone rang continuously and I received well over 1,000 emails and letters. The prize ceremony was a bit of a lark – royalty, trumpets, processions. Paul and I made a bit of a hit (with the British ambassador, at least) by having a hug on stage.

The prize money made a big difference to my life. It was something like four years’ salary tax-free, and my salary went up considerably, too. So for the first time in my life I no longer had to worry so much about money.

The main non-financial benefits of the prize come if you enjoy travel and meeting interesting people. It opens certain doors, and it’s a wonderful club to belong to because of the exaggerated respect you receive from complete strangers. Your views are always taken seriously as long as they relate to something you know about, and I do feel Nobel laureates have a responsibility to act as a kind of ambassador for science and to promote scientific values, such as by giving talks to schools and student societies.

One example of where being a laureate has been useful is when we were pushing for the foundation of the European Research Council, which was very dear to my heart. European Union-funded science in the olden days was very top-down and poorly administered and refereed. A couple of times, a little posse of Nobel laureates went to see the European Commission and we were taken very seriously. Last year, in lobbying for funding for the ERC, we went to see the presidents of the European Parliament, the European Council and the European Commission all in one wonderful afternoon. But in the US the Nobel effect is not as powerful – there are too many laureates.

Sir Tim Hunt is an emeritus group leader at Cancer Research UK’s London Research Institute.

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