It’s 11:30 am, the brightest time of a mid-December day in Stockholm, if not for a gentle but annoying rain that has been falling since this very early morning. I can hear different languages around me, somebody complains about the weather or dim light, especially those who have been spending the last hour waiting in line to secure a seat to attend the upcoming event. Given the gloomy atmosphere outside the entrance of Aula Medica, the warm light welcoming the spectators inside the auditorium is a pleasant sensation. The renewed feeling in my frozen extremities inevitably coincides with the expectation for the imminent lectures by the three 2017 Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine.
Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young earned this prestigious award for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms that control circadian rhythms, the self-sustaining biological clocks that govern the activity of nearly every tissue in living organisms. If you are not a fan of fruit flies or a trained geneticist, though, you might think it unlikely to find an interest in their three lectures. As an immunologist with a keen passion for the study of environmental cues rather than genes, I can reassure you: genes and flies were nicely counterbalanced by a healthy dose of humor and wisdom. And I hope you will enjoy the list of 9 semi-serious lessons I learned from these three outstanding scientists.
- Do not take science too seriously
It was sufficient for the first lecturer, Jeffrey C. Hall, to walk on the stage with his confidence and a Brawndo hat that said “The Thirst Mutilator” to let the audience recognise his sparkling personality. His non-conventional lecture was interspersed with witty jokes and inspired a genuine pleasure in all the aspects of science, from lab work to conferences and networking. Doing research is demanding and at times frustrating, but such a vocation can become more enjoyable if you don’t take it too seriously.
- Be patient, results might come unexpected
While he managed to surprise the audience with a slide-free monologue about the history preluding to his discoveries, Jeffrey C. Hall also told the story of the geneticist and fellow Nobel laureate Edward Bok Lewis. Ed Lewis, as Jeffry C Hall would friendly call him, did not publish for a long time (around 20 years passed after his PhD) before he burst forth with his amazing discoveries, which earned him the Nobel prize in 1995. As Michael Rosbash would confirm in his own lecture, patience and perseverance are key qualities for a scientist.
- Value a meritocratic environment
A central point in Michael Rosbash’s conclusive remarks was the acknowledgment of the meritocratic environment encountered throughout his career. It might sound obvious but it is heartwarming to hear that excellent science can walk along with fairness and respect. A healthy academic ecosystem is fundamental to promote original and courageous research programs.
- Be grateful to your predecessors, science is a cumulative process
It is well known that new knowledge can build up only thanks to the solid foundations established by our predecessors. Be it a seminal 100-year-old observation or an innovative technique made recently available, there’s never too much appraising past contributions. The 2017 Nobel laureates did not spare any effort to convince the audience about the pivotal input of a number of fellow geneticists to their amazing discoveries.
- Praise Actual Investigators (and fruit flies)
On the same line, all the 2017 Nobel laureates appraised the Actual Investigators – a term coined by Jeffrey C Hall as opposed to the commonly known figure of the Principal Investigator. These are postdoctoral researchers, PhD candidates and other students who are investing their actual time and effort to do experiments and produce the results which decide the validity of a new theory. A peculiar acknowledgment was also addressed by Jeffrey C Hall to the fruit flies which contributed with their biological material to the discovery of molecular mechanisms that control circadian rhythms.
- Draw cautious conclusions and be aware of alternative explanations
The papers by which the 2017 Nobel Laureates in Medicine demonstrated the existence of a gene, period, whose transcript controls the 24-hour biological rhythmicity of fruit flies, date back to 1984. As Michael Rosbash interestingly pointed out in his presentation, these papers opened to a series of hypothesis about mechanisms by which the PER protein would function. In an elegant slide of his Nobel lecture, he retraced a cautious model encompassing all the hypotheses formulated in the past, including valuable ideas that would not find empirical confirmation in following studies. This is a nice description of how the scientific method is structured, whereby a scientist is open to different interpretations of his data, designs experiments to address his questions and is eager to discard the hypotheses that are not supported by evidence.
- Find a collaborator with an opposite personality
If you are looking for a way to stimulate creativity and find new points of view on your research, there is nothing better than interacting with other researchers. As he talked of his close collaborator and friend Jeffrey C Hall, Michael Rosbash liked to stress the importance of exchanging ideas with a colleague with such a different personality. A clash of views and attitudes, as well as complementary expertise, is apparently a good ingredient to generate new ideas and put them to the test. The quest for new knowledge requires a bit of tension!
- Understand your brain/body conflict during jet lag
In chronobiological terms, on the contrary, conflict can be detrimental. Michael W. Young described how the genetic machinery regulating the multiple biological clocks of a living organism can be affected by light exposure. Thanks to a photosensitive protein, CRY, light can affect some, but not all, the biological clocks of the organism, with the potential to desynchronise them and cause the metabolic and behavioural effects of a jet lag.
- We are not so different from fruit flies
As you might have guessed from the previous point, what the 2017 Nobel laureates have discovered in fruit flies applies to humans as well. The mechanisms that control circadian rhythms are indeed well conserved in our bodies, with some variants due to evolution. Mutations in the gene encoding CRY cause the human Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder (DSPD), whose carriers experience more alertness and creativity in the evening and at night (henceforth the name of “night owls”).
By the time I leave Aula Medica, it’s past 3 pm and the last glimmers of light have vanished into the premature night of Swedish winter. I cannot avoid thinking about the confusion my circadian clocks are undergoing while I run back to the lab to have a late lunch.