Don’t Ask for Whom the Nobel Tolls

The highest honor for a physician scientist is arguably receiving the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. On more than one occasion, the greatest questions that scientists seek to solve have been broached by my professors saying, “if you can answer this, you’ll win the Nobel Prize.” Admittedly, I perk up when I hear such a promise, but it also makes me think about why some questions are so crucial and so difficult to answer. So difficult, in fact, that this year’s Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine—Yoshinori Ohsumi—felt the need to share that with us young folks.

Dr. Yoshinori Ohsumi

Dr. Ohsumi received the Nobel Prize for his seminal work on autophagy—a process that is near and dear to all of us and our understanding of human physiology. Among other things, he described the morphology of autophagy in yeast as well as essential genes necessary for the process. Upon acceptance of the award, he had a message for aspiring scientists: “I’d like to tell young people that not all can be successful in science, but it’s important to rise to the challenge.” This wasn’t exactly the run-of-the-mill message of inspiration I expected when I started reading the interview. The more I thought about it, however, the more it resonated with me.

If you are reading this, there is a good chance that you already know science is hard; you don’t need a Nobel Laureate to tell you that. The correlate to that is of course what Dr. Ohsumi says—that not everyone will be successful on such a grand stage. It would seem that such things require a lot of hard work and no shortage of good fortune, as the saying goes. While I knew this already, I tend to put it out of my mind until it creeps up in the form of negative data, botched experiments, or getting scooped by another lab. Hearing someone at the summit of scientific success bring this up, though, made me take a good look at a serious reality. But within the same breath, Dr. Ohsumi candidly inspired me. It’s true that science is challenging, but rising to the challenge can be a considerable source of motivation.

To get where you are now—whether you are applying to the UAB MSTP, are already interviewing here, or even have a position—you have pursued at least this one challenge. You are also willingly entering into the daunting career of medicine, the challenges of which are perhaps better known than those of research. You clearly have a thing for rising to challenges. Why is this pursuit important? First, if you’re anything like me, it is important to you. If that is not enough, it is important to those who may one day benefit from your research, or the research of someone in your field. And of course, where would that leave us if no one rises to this simultaneously strenuous and stimulating challenge? For this reason, too, it is important.

I wouldn’t ask anyone to undertake such a career for any single one of these reasons, nor do I think Dr. Ohsumi would do so. It is perhaps a combination of these reasons—and any combination of others—that I also think it is important to rise to such a challenge despite the promised difficulty. I applaud Dr. Ohsumi on his tremendous success and I am grateful for his contribution to our knowledge; personally, I would like to thank him for the inspiration he has spread that forces us to reflect on the challenges of our career choice and use those to guide us, rather than to ignore them. Thank you!

-Hayden  Pacl, MS2