I was nominated by the Irish Research Council to attend the Lindau Nobel Laureates Meeting in 2020 as a Young Scientist. Due to the pandemic, the event was postponed twice, taking place only online, and I have gradually become a slightly older scientist, but this year I finally get to visit the island on Bodensee, about which I’ve heard so much, mingle with Chemistry Nobel Laureates and other young scientists from around the world.
End of a busy week of work
This week was busier than usual, preparing a lot of things in my research group in advance of vanishing to Germany for a week. A highlight of the week was a discussion forum with leaders from Science Foundation Ireland and the Irish Research Council about the state of research careers in Ireland at the moment. There are many challenges with having a sustainable research career anywhere in the world, but some of the hurdles and opportunities were discussed and maybe solutions will emerge. I’m at the point of my career where I’m just starting to hire other researchers to work in my group, which gives me a new perspective on the topic.
A midnight start
It’s quite far from Galway to Lindau, so it’s an early start! It’s been a very long time since I’ve been on an international flight. Something that used to be very routine for me has become a big deal, and after hearing about the delays that sometimes happen in Dublin airport recently, I’m leaving nothing to chance – a 1 am bus should get me to my early morning flight on Saturday.
Back to Switzerland
I decided to fly to Zürich for old times sake. Lindau is equidistant from several airports in Switzerland and Germany and delegates will, as I write, be arriving from every continent to Munich, Stuttgart, and Zürich. In lived in Switzerland for 3 years, as a Marie Curie Fellow. This European Commission funding supports cutting edge science, while also promoting European identity, by allowing scientists to work in a new country. One of the great things about a life in scientific research is the diversity of people you work with. People from different countries and cultures brought together by intellectual challenges in university labs! It is also a career where you get to travel for work and experience new places. I became very familiar with the Swiss rail network, spending weekends up mountains and by lakes and wanted to get aboard one of those red-seated carriages again!
Of course, the need to travel for research has downsides too. It adds to the precarious employment conditions of many researchers, moving between countries and social protection systems on a series of 1- to 2-year postdoctoral research contracts, trying to forge a name for themselves. Unequal distribution of resources also fuels a “brain drain” from less well-off countries towards the US and Europe, with all the ethical quandaries that entails. The Lindau community is active in discussions around these topics, promoting open, global and sustainable science, and is working on developing the Lindau Guidelines. This framework, spearheaded by Elizabeth Blackburn aims to use the moral authority of Nobel Laureates and the fact that the Young Scientists at these meetings are future leaders, to foster a better research culture.
Browsing Twitter, it didn’t take long to realise I wasn’t the only one traveling. I could see familiar names posting excitedly about their journeys. People I hadn’t realised I would be seeing, who I know from conferences, inline activity or their publications. I’m looking forward to getting to catch up with all these chemists in one place. By a lovely coincidence, I ran into Adele Gabba, another IRC nominee on the train platform, waiting to go to Lindau! We hadn’t seen each other since she left NUI Galway, and she is now a Marie Curie Global Fellow in MIT. We also bumped into Newcastle University researcher Chiara Maniaci (who has a blog on the Lindau website). It feels more and more like an adventure!
After a lovely journey, I arrived at Lindau-Reutin station, just across the border into Germany. My host family were waiting to meet me on the platform. They were very welcoming and keen to tell me everything about the town. I was their third young scientist guest. They brought me into their beautiful home on the mainland, offered local apple juice and homemade quiche lorraine and made sure I wanted for nothing. They even lent me a bicycle to get around Lindau and back to the main event on the Lindau Island. The young scientists are accommodated in all sorts of setups, from the homes of local families to hotels, hostels and villas. The fact that you have no idea what to expect is part of the fun, and a good conversation starter.
My first sight of Bodensee, the lake also known as Lake Konstanz, was breathtaking. Today was a beautiful day to cycle along safe and treelined roads with ample biking infrastructure, and we rounded a corner to give a view of the shimmering water, full of reveling swimmers, overlooked by old-style Bavarian buildings on the island, a railway bridge, and a Zeppelin. It made for a remarkable scene. The island itself was full of a nice buzz, and I got chatting to a few more young scientists in the queue to register in the Inselhalle. We are still being cautious here, bringing together people from all over the world, and we all need to show a negative antigen test each day to enter the venue, while quality face coverings are encouraged indoors. We each recieved a programme, a list of attendees, a pack of antigen tests, entry for any extra events we will be attending, and must importantly our delegate lanyards – these will be our ticket to everything from scientific talks to city buses.
With no scientific programme today, we sat out in the sun, getting to know each other and sharing stories about science, home, workplaces and plans for the future. Being an Irishman in a sunny place, I couldn’t resist diving into the lake for a swim to cool off. The shore was teeming with locals and tourists doing the same. A few of us went on a tour of the Art Museum (in an old post office), Mythos Natur, a journey through time of paintings from artists including Monet and Warhol, all trying to capture nature on the canvas in their own way. A fitting artistic diversion for scientists. I wrapped up my day with Italian food by the harbour and a beautiful sunset cycle home.
Day 1, Sunday
After a lovely breakfast with my host family of a selection of local cheeses, bread and cured meats, I cycled in the sunshine to the Inselhalle conference centre, where a huge crowd was gathering for the opening ceremony. I passed the area “Reserved for Nobel Laureates” and found a seat beside some people I had met yesterday. The formal opening included an address from Countess Bettina Bernadotte, the patron of the Meetings, carrying on a 71 year family tradition. The German Federal, and Bavarian State ministers for science both also made speeches, welcoming us and underscoring how important science is, and how that has been highlighted in the last few years. They encouraged us to keep asking big questions, and not be intimated about chatting with the laureates seated at the front of the room, who were asked to look around at us and wave (see photo)! The final contribution was from the co-chairs of the meeting, who had arranged the programme. I was delighted to see Prof Valeria Nicolosi, an influential researcher from Trinity College Dublin was one of them. I overlapped for a few years with Prof Nicolosi, towards the end of my PhD in Trinity, and it was lovely to see a familiar face in a leadership role here on a global stage.
After all the welcomes, the Bavarian government invited us to a reception in the main hall. We were fed and watered and had another chance to get to know each other. I bumped into a Swiss-based researcher I had met online before during the last Lindau event, and we joined a table of British and Australian based researchers. Prof Richard Schrock (2005 Chemistry Prize) came to chat to us for a while about his semi retirement (he’s still doing some research), his advice on research (study something you love and then you will want to work hard) and hobbies (building furniture has a lot in common with building molecules apparently!). I had an interest in his work, since the metathesis reactions he is famous for were something I used in a project during my PhD. He was a very nice man and we all enjoyed the chat. I didn’t remember to get a photo with him, but the group are all here below. I found it really interesting how many of us already had some knowledge of each other from the online events of the last two years, or from being active in talking about their research on Twitter. Clearly these platforms do help young researchers build a global reputation among their peers.
After lunch, David MacMillan, one of this year’s awardees gave a very inspiring talk, striking the balance between the “big picture” of why his research is relevant to a non-expert, but not leaving out the important details. He was very good humoured and joked that, while he was looking forward to meeting all the young scientists, he was also really excited to meet the Nobel laureates: it hasn’t quite sunk in that he is one of them yet! The humility was fun. He won his prize, alongside Benjamin List for “asymmetric organo-catalysis”, designing new reactions which allow chemists to control the structure of molecules, especially when there are two possible “mirror image” structures possible. Nature is really good at asymmetric reactions (eg the odours of lemons and oranges come from two different molecules, which contain all the same parts, but which are mirror images of each other) and thanks to this work and the work of others in the field, humans are better at controlling this reactivity as well. He was asked who the most exciting people he had met since his award were. He told us William Shatner had wanted to interview him for a programme and enjoyed doing so so much that he still occasionally calls up MacMillan with science questions – he never expected Captain Kirk to ask him what a photon was! Meeting Alex Ferguson at his home was also a highlight (particularly for a fellow Scot), and was something he couldn’t imagine happening otherwise. The Nobel prize gives access to scientists to doors that might have been closed before, be it in politics, the press or business, and that attention has to be used carefully.
Another cultural part of the programme was a treat from the Austrian Federal Ministry of Science and Education – a quartet from the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra performed a selection of Rossini, Johann and Josef Strauss, and others to a packed Stadttheater. On the way in I had met two other Irish nominees, and enjoyed listening to this fine music in their company. After an hour’s performance, we returned for dinner, conversation and drinks in the sunset over the lake. I spoke for a long time with German-speaking researchers from various parts of Central Europe, and also met some of the Australian delegation (pictured below, with mandatory koalas), who have just finished a tour of Berlin universities last week. A fascinating aspect of the 2-year delay in attending for many, like me, is that some people have moved on from the university that used to employ them, and may be either elsewhere, or moved to an industrial workplace since. We’re also not all as “young” as the term young scientist might imply!
Day 2, Monday
Ben Feringa – “The joy of discovery”
Dutch chemist Feringa is famous for his work in making molecular machines, such as motors and windmills (of course!). He is often asked “why do we need molecular motors and machines?”, particularly since they are so different than human-scale motors. He pointed out that people asked the same of the Wright brothers about flight. People thought it was impossible to build a “mechanical bord”, and it was, planes are nothing like birds, but they do let us fly.
Fundamental science underpins modern society, and so doing things with immediate applications is important. Liquid crystal displays led to smartphones, Li ion batteries led to electric cars, etc. Often, however, there is a 50 year turnaround on it becoming “important”.
Feringa grew up on a farm on the Dutch German border. He thinks no one in his village ever went to university. He gave credit to his teachers who supported him. He made his first molecule at university, which was absolutely useless but it was so exciting to know that you are the first person to ever arrange atoms that way. This passion for building molecules never went away. In his career, he’s even made tiny “nano-cars” from complicated single molecules, and they had a Grand prix in Paris where they raced them. He said he knew he’d “made it” not when he won the Nobel, but rather when he saw grafitti in Paris where someone had drawn his molecules on a wall!
Chemistry is the creating science: he told us be proud to be chemists. Sometimes people focus on negative impacts of chemicals, but we are the branch of science who make make materials, medicines, clothes, flavours, and everything else in between.
Later in the day, in an Open Exchange session, I got to ask Prof Feringa a question about what it’s like to overnight become a spokesperson for a whole topic of science, in his case, Supramolecular chemistry. He said it’s important to be careful not to let people assume you’re an expert in things you are not trained in. For instance, he had ton turn down many offers to talk on tv about coronavirus, something he has no expertise on. But he is doing a lot to promote chemistry with young people, which is a great privilege.
Covid challenges at the meeting
Unsurprisingly, this large gathering of scientists from all over the world is not immune to the ongoing pandemic. On day 1, some people were already absent, quarantining in nearby hotels after their daily antigen test, or that of someone they were staying with went positive. Donna Strickland was one of these, but she delivered her talk to the hall remotely and told us fascinating things about lasers. She highlighted that she’s a very interesting Nobel laureate, because the work she was highlighted for was worked she completed as a PhD student many years before it’s impact became clear.
Some other laureates disappeared over the week too, appearing on screens later, as cases began to rise, which was a pity for everyone. Masks are being more stringently used indoors and daily antigen tests are doing their best to keep the virus under control, but it’s clear that the pandemic has not gone away.
Conversations in breaks
At lunch, a group gathered around Michael Levitt. He had a lot to say about programming languages in his field of research, and about the need for young scientist to have mentors (and the problems this can present for women). He was not the first laureate of the week to remind us that failure and dead ends in research are inevitable. This is part of the discovery of new science. When asked,he admitted he didn’t know how important his work was early on, but he thought it was cool, and that’s what drove him to keep exploring.
I asked if he had advice for starting off as a PI – how do you pick the project? He said you simply have to be driven by something that challenge and excites you. You shouldn’t do something that others want you to do. You can’t predict what will be revolutionary. Whether it’s Nobel prize-winning is mostly chance, but whether you are proud of what you’ve done at the end of your career will derive from whether you pursue something you think matters.
Evening events sponsored by UK
We returned to the Inselhalle in the evening to a bagpipe band, and union jacks galore, as the dinner tonight was the International Day, sponsored this year by the UK (so roast beef on the menu). I was lucky to be seated at a table, directly opposite William Kaelin Jr, from the USA. He was a great conversationalist, engaging all the young scientists around over the course of the evening. He also had a dry wit. He showed us a screenshot of the phone call from Sweden coming in, and points out how he knew it was possible he’d win, because he’d win a few other prizes, which are often precursors to the Nobel. Nonetheless, it was surreal receiving the call, and he felt like he was watching himself living out a scene in his life, rather than it being real. He recalled someone asking did winning the Nobe prizel make his imposter syndrome better or worse – his answer was simply “yes”!
At the dinner, I met in person for the first time with some people I met in online Lindau events the previous two years (photos below). I participated in Sciathon competitions about making seminars accessible online, and about promoting sustainability in chemistry. It’s been really nice to see scientists who until now had just been names I know from online, and bumping into chemists I haven’t seen in years. As I went home by bike through the quiet streets, I was amazed to look up and be able to count the stars, it was such a clear sky, which was striking. Lots of bright twinkling to light up the night.
Day 3, Tuesday
Mars Partner Breakfast (How can chemistry unlock meaningful insights on health and nutrition)
Mars had sponsored an early morning discussion over breakfast in Forum am See. Disappointingly, there was not a single chocolate bar in sight, which I understand is because sponsors aren’t meant to self promote. Laureate Cieconover drew attention to the fact that while we have widespread data from clinical trials to determine the impacts of drugs, we have less robust data on nutrients and their impact on later disease state development.
We need more biomarkers for health beyond just the basic minerals and vitamins we know we need. We don’t know all the bioactive molecules and factors that might help keep us healthy. The panel agreed that we need more data than we have, in order for nutrition to be evidence driven, since we don’t know the relationships between biomarkers and outcomes (as we do for cholesterol for heart disease). One suggestion is that we should redefine “health”, as more than the absence of disease state, but broader and more vigilant view. It was a very interesting discussion so early in the day.
Wisdom from all branches of science
Talks today included Prof Brian Schmidt, William Kaelin (who I had dinner with yesterday), William Moerner and Robert Huber. Schmidt told us (a group of chemists) all about how astrophysicists have figured out that the universe is expanding. Kaelin showed us his rejection letter from Harvard early in his career and a professor’s evaluation that “Mr Kaelin is clearly a bright young man, whose future rests outside the laboratory” – we see how wrong that turned out, as he did lots of research developing drugs for various kinds of cancer. He said the impact his work has had on patients is the most rewarding thing. The Nobel prize is great, but it doesn’t change what drives him, which is keeping peoples lives better. Moerner and Huber had both made contributions to different techniques for seeing individual molecules and understanding their shapes and location.
In the breaks, I really found like I was getting to know people. It felt like summer camp, when you’re a kid. You keep bumping into the same folks and quicky become friendly. The Irish research Council delegation finally found each other for a group photo (Adele Gabba, MIT, and Ibrahim Aminu, UL) and i had lunch with two of the south African delegates, who have had some of the longest journeys here.
On Sunday, I had briefly met Dick Schrock, an important organometallic chemist (an area I studied in my postdoctoral work), and made some small talk. Today however I got to see him speak on scientific matters and you can tell how much he loves it. His lecture was very interesting, but I also attended an “Open Exchange” with him in the Hotel Bayerishe Hof, down by the harbour. Here he told stories of his career, frequently turning to a flip chart to draw out molecules he discovered that had been important breakthroughs that led him on a different path. For instance, one discovery led him to leave his industrial research job in Dupont and return to academia in order to really explore the fundamentals of this new type of chemistry. It was very inspiring and all the young people in the room listened to his every word. His wife Nancy was also there and she occasionally contributed, giving the point of view of the family and what it has been like to be the spouse of a leading scientists, including compromises that had to be made. She is also a very engaging person and they seem like a good team.
Grill and Chill
In the evening, we were invited to a “Grill and Chill” in a villa on the lake shore, which is the home and office of the mayor. She greeted us, along with her partner and small baby, and made us feel very welcome. Many citizens of Lindau, including my host family had also been invited and they got the opportunity to connect with the science community. Over barbecue, a group of us chatted to Brian Schmidt about the challenges of running an Australian university during the recent years of pandemic. He had very interesting thoughts to share on this topic and others and was very generous with his time to us. The whole evening was a lovely relaxed way to meet more young people, and of course there was some dancing!
Day 4, Wednesday
The day began with an interesting chat over coffee between several young scientists and Randy Schekman about the future of the scientific publishing industry. This has been a hot topic for researchers for a long time, as conflict has arisen between traditional scientific journals, which require costly subscriptions, and the fact that most science is publicly funded and should therefore be publicly accessible. Open access publishing is going some way to addressing this conflict, but this way of publishing costs thousands of dollars per article to publish. As the editor of eLife, a prestigious open access journal, Prof Schekman provided great insights on the challenges that face creating the perfect model for dissemination of scientific results, but we are moving in the right direction.
I attended interesting talks by laureates Kurt Wühtrich and Harmut Michel, both of whom had worked with metalloproteins in their careers and the afternoon’s highlight was a panel discussion on green chemistry, and the role catalysis has to play in making chemistry more sustainable and renewable. Prof Schrock pointed out that catalysis is “green” by it’s nature, since it is recycling of the same agent over and over again, when done right. He got interested in Catalysis, and “making things” in grad school. He was also attracted to a career Dupont for the same reason, where they were developing catalysts to make polymers more efficiently. He thought catalysis is useful to society, which is part of why he likes it.
While Schrock’s catalysts are metal-based Prof MacMillan uses organic molecules in catalysis. Since organic molecules can go back into the life stream through decomposition etc, and are therefore inherently more sustainable. The difficulty of working with air- and moisture-unstable metal catalysts, as well as expense and particular issues with resources globally encouraged him to explore the new categories of reagent that led to his Nobel prize. He believes that we must keep inventing new forms of catalysis.
The panel and the audience questions raised issues about whether use of hydrogen in catalysis, or as a fuel is part of the future, whether we need better catalysts for peptide synthesis (nature is so much more efficient at this than chemists) and whether we need to embed a passion for sustainability into how we teach a new generation of chemists to make sure this becomes a priority in everything we do, not just an afterthought.
Prof MacMillan had some good career advice: don’t chase questions just because the ‘field’ wants you too. Chase your passion. Often things that are breakthroughs are led by one person for a while before being accepted by the field. Don’t let this put you off.
Our open exchange discussion with Michael Levitt was interesting and very philosophical, with debate about the nature of “truth” in science. He espoused a view that while any given scientific observation is not necessarily correct, science as a whole is self-correcting, and over time errors are spotted and contradicted with better models or evidence, while truth is built upon with more complexity and the conclusions still hold steady. It is an interesting position, but some from the audience rightly pointed out that this is challenging in communication with the public, where, for instance, the now discredited article incorrectly linking the MMR vaccine with autism, which has had a huge impact on emboldening anti-vaccination conspiracy theories despite being disproven over and over again. Climate change denial is another example, where selective use of cherry picked scientific findings can undermine public trust, despite the consensus in the field. The question remains is there anything we can do to stop the erroneous science seeing the light of day in the first place, and if so would it be ethical? Prof Levitt has been controversial with his use of Twitter to comment on the pandemic in recent years, and some of the discussion got heated, but overall it was a respectful and interesting 90 minute airing of views from all sides.
The evening ended with young scientists visiting the market that had set up alongside the Inselhalle, having drinks on the jetty which has been engraved with the names of every Nobel laureate who has visited Lindau, and ultimately going to the only Irish bar in the city (where I caught up with another Irish young scientist, based in Germany).
Day 5, Thursday
The last day of the scientific program began with another of this year’s chemistry prizewinners, Prof Benjamin List, who had pioneered the use of proline in organo-catalysis. We were also treated to a fascinating insight into high resolution microscopy by Stefan Hell, explaining how certain physical and mathematical limitations were overcome to allowing the imaging of single molecules with light microscopes. Konstantin Novoselev gave a very entertaining talk about 2D materials, including the famous realisation that by exfoliating layers of pencil lead with adhesive tape, they obtained single layers of graphene, a carbon-based material that is very important to nanotechnology today. Other kinds of pencils gave different materials and he is interesting in building up complex layered materials with increasingly complex properties. We also saw Randy Schekman again, this time talking about his scientific research, focuseed on Parkinson’s disease, a topic he has pursued for quite personal reasons and he now funds a foundation looking for disruptive breakthroughs in neurodegenerative diseases. These diseases kill so many, but treatments have advanced very slowly over the decades by comparison to heart disease and cancer.
Ada Yonath delivered the “life lecture”, giving an overview of her career understanding the function of the ribosome – the machinery in our cells that builds proteins from mRNA instructions. These hugely important discoveries were considered nearly impossible at the start of her career, and she put the scientific work into excellent context to help us understand its importance. Crystallisation of ribosome proteins, for example, proved very difficult as it is a very delicate molecule, but it was possible for ribosomes from bacteria that live under extreme conditions, which are more robust, such as those in the Dead Sea, near to her institute – this environmental advantage helped with breakthroughs.
She highlighted that antibiotic resistance is one of the greatest challenges in the world right now. They profit from random mutation to develop resistance to our drugs. She has tried to inhibit several parts of the ribosome function for new antibiotics, and new approaches will prove important to healthcare in the 21st century.
There was a wide-ranging discussion on implementing the Lindau Guidelines (towards more ethical and global research) to which I made some contributions, which can be seen from 1:23:50 onwards at this link.
Jean-Marie Lehn and the Bavarian Evening
A highlight of Thursday for me was the chance to spend time listening and talking with Jean-Marie Lehn, one of the architects of supramolecular chemistry (and I believe, the originator of that term). He gave a lecture in the morning highlighting the importance of the chemical interactions between molecules in complex systems. How molecular recognition requires interaction for binding, information for selecting one guest over another, and that this double-complementarity gives rise to the famous “lock and key” metaphor for proteins binding to drugs. He gave us a fascinating overview of his vast work. In the afternoon’s open exchange, he wanted to tell us stories about the chemists he had worked with in his youth, famous names like Woodward (who was leading the famous project on the total synthesis of vitamin B12 at the time), Roald Hoffmann and Subramania Ranganathan. He told us how he started off his education in Alscace with the study of philosophy, but the university required him to also take science – and this interested him more and more. He believes the philosophical training made him ask bigger questions that his peers. He is a fundamental chemists, and has tried to avoid worrying unduly about practical applications of his work, but he has worked with a few companies on patents. At one point, in answer to a question, he pulled out a flip-chart and started giving us a brief tutorial on nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to explain a key unexpected result, which led him on an interesting journey of discovery. He is clearly driven by understanding details and this has stood him well in his chosen career!
His general career advice to us was threefold: don’t miss the train (by ignoring unexpected results); don’t jump on a train that’s mostly full; also – think perpendicularly! Discovering new things is important, so don’t just work in your comfort zone.
I was lucky enough to sit with Prof. Lehn at the Bavarian evening dinner, along with several young scientists from the Israeli delegation. Over cured meats, bretzels, cheeses and beer, there was lots of further engaging discussion about surpamolecular chemistry, classical music and more. He was very generous with his time.
The last evening of celebration was introduced by and hosted by the Bavarian state government. They put on a great show of traditional dancing, with lederhosen and drindl, good piles of sauerkraut and a band of Alpenhorn on the steps outside.
Day 6, Friday
The last day of the week consisted of an early morning boat trip to Mainau Island, to close the event. Mainau, on the other side of the lake is the home of the Benadotte family, the patrons of this event for seven decades. Countess Bettina was keen to have us come and see the beautiful flowers and plants that thrive on this garden island, and the govenerment of Baden-Wurtemburg sponsored the 2 hour boat trip on a spectactular modern vessel that felt like a floating hotel. The story is that some local physicians had wanted to invite the Nobel Laureates in Medicine to Lindau 71 years ago, and they asked their neighbour Count Benadotte, a relative of the Swedish Royal Family, to use his connections with Stockholm to encourage the Nobel organisation to help. This spawned the tradition of having these meetings every year.
It was a rainy morning, but once this blew over, we had beautiful clear views of Bodensee – Switzerland, Austria and Germany arrayed along the coastline. A zeppelin passed overhead several times from Friedrichshaven, which I was fascinated by, and the sun shone. The several hours journey, with music, dancing and food was a good opportunity to bid farewell to all those I’d met this week, exchanging contact details and hoping to stay in touch. I finally got a chance to chat with Benjamin List as we stood on the top deck, admiring the lake. In his final address on the island, thanking the organisers and participants, he said “I’m in love with beauty, truth and intelligence, and Lindau brings all of these together”.
In a pavillion, we had our final, robust discussion about the topic of diversity in science, before the event was formally closed with several speeches and a picnic on the lawns of the garden island of Mainau. This beautiful setting was a great way to close out an engaging and memorable week. I would encourage every young scientist with the chance to apply to attent this event – you will only get one chance, but it will be worth it!