Recorded: 22 Aug 2008
So based on my own experience, I always tell students that you have to first of all work on something that you think is interesting and important. And try to look for some what I call mystery…something that happens in biology, we have no idea how it actually happens. I mean in the case of DNA replication…we didn’t…you know biology is too complicated to predict. We had no idea that it would turn out to be a replication protein machine and all. No way to predict all that. We had to discover. So the biology has to guide humans in their thought…So based on my own experience I tell students to work on something that you’re passionately interested about, you don’t understand, and I call a mystery. And try to figure out the answer to that mystery. If you do that, you’re going to really solve something that’s important in biology. I discourage people from doing experiments that are obvious. First of all, everybody is going to do the obvious experiment, and you’re not going to make a unique contribution. I think the fun of doing science is actually contribute something unique to knowledge so that... Obviously somebody would have eventually discovered what I discovered at some point. But, you know, maybe it saved five years of people’s time fishing around in the dark. And that’s probably the most you could hope for. So you tried to, ah, have an impact, to make a contribution, and to do that you have to do something that’s not obvious. And that means taking risks, and ah, I work as a senior scientist. I work to make it easier for young scientists to make risks as much as possible. I think playing safe in science is a sure recipe for doing something that’s boring.
…I had been very successful as an undergraduate. My senior thesis with Jacques Fresco and Paul, Paul Doty was published in one paper in Nature and one paper in PNA. And that was totally…I was in the right place at the right time. So I thought I understood how to do science. But I had no idea of strategy. And strategy is very important in science. I’ve actually written about this… Nature paper about my experience in which I ended up failing my Ph.D. exam the first time because I had basically made up theories, just like Jim Watson had made up theories. We were all inspired by Watson and Crick’s paper. Thinking that we could predict biology. And of course that’s wrong. And so I tried to predict how DNA polymerase was able to replicate a double strand DNA molecule. What we then might be possible, and I was predicting things that I was testing for. I tested them and they turned out to be not there. So what? Not that my theory was wrong, but I didn’t impress anybody. So I had a very difficult time getting out of Harvard with a Ph.D. which made me completely rethink, you know, what mistakes I had made. That’s the other thing I would say to young scientists, you’re going to make lots of mistakes. Study them and learn from them and don’t make the same mistake twice. There’s no way to really teach people to do science. I think you have to guide them and let them make their own mistakes. But enable them to have resources to aim high. At any rate, so, I decided then to use a different kind of strategy in which any experiment I did would mean something, even if it wasn’t …I learned something from the experiment. I wouldn’t just be disproving some theory that nobody about anyway. And that’s why I decided to invent the method that ended up being called DNA-cellulose chromatography.
Bruce Alberts, currently Editor-in-chief of Science, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysic at the University of California and United States Science Envoy. He received A.B. (1960) in Biochemical Science from Harvard College, Cambridge, Massachusetts and Ph.D. (1965) from Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1966 he joined Department of Chemistry at the Princeton University and after 10 years he became professor and vice chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysic at the UCSF.
Alberts work is best known for his work on the protein complexes that allow chromosomes to be replicated. He is one of the authors of The Molecular Biology of the Cell, a major textbook in the field. He served two-six years terms as a president of National Academy of Science (1993-2005). During his administration at NAS, he was involved in developing the landmark of National Science Education standards.
Among many honors and awards (16 honorary degrees), he is Co-chair of the InterAcademy Council and a trustee of Gordon and Betty Moore Fundation.
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