A few months ago, I had the immense privilege of representing Australia at the 71st Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting (#LINO71) amongst approximately 500 young scientists from 90 countries and 30 Nobel Laureates. It was a 6-day long meeting that generated a lot of excitement and anticipation, but what was it really like?
I’d describe #LINO71 as the Olympics for young scientists (minus the competition aspect), sprinkled with the energy of a TEDx conference, and the awe of a Lifetime Achievement Award celebration. In other words, it was a gathering filled with ideas, multilateral relationship building, and reverence for esteemed scientists.
Held at the Inselhalle, a modern convention centre at the heart of Lindau island, the scene inside was far from tranquil. Every day was packed from start to finish – from panel discussions and open exchanges to lectures and a plethora of social activities. I still recall when all the young scientists were yearning for coffee after it became clear we had 14+ hour days ahead of us!
Of course, nothing would have stopped us, the opportunity to listen to these Nobel Laureates and meet fellow scientists was too great to miss. For many of us, it was the first in-person gathering we’ve had since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. A keynote lecture with 500 people in the audience now felt intimate and a 50 person open forum with a Nobel Laureate became a scientific soiree. (A scientific soiree has a nice ring to it, don’t you think? I think we should have more of them!)
Even though we came from all corners of the world, the one thread in common was enthusiasm, and when it came to Nobel Laureates, they had lots of it! As a science communicator myself, I was so inspired by the way they shared their science – uncondescending, engaging, and filled with hope. You know when a talk is good when you leave feeling curious and wanting to know more. But a talk is great when you leave feeling empowered with self-belief.
Some of the more memorable quotes include Dr. Louis Ignarro (also known as Dr. NO, who won a Nobel for his discovery of nitric oxide as a ‘signalling molecule in the cardiovascular system’): “Go where there is no path” and Dr. Ada Younaf (who won a Nobel for her work on the ‘structure and function of the ribosome’) quoting Albert Einstein: “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious”.
Inspiration is one thing, but inspiring action is what we should aim for.
The diversity challenge
Please humour me while I reference a scene from the movie Miss Congeniality. If you’ve seen the movie, you might recall a scene where each beauty pageant contestant would finish their answer to a question by saying how important world peace is. The movie audience then cheered with support while movie watchers cringed at its trivialness.
In STEM, one of the biggest challenges the sector is dealing with is how to increase female representation. However, with all the talk of increasing diversity, there runs a risk where diversity becomes trivial. And by trivial, I mean more talk than action.
During #LINO71, I was saddened when only two out of 13 young scientists selected to present their research were female-identifying.
But more than this, I realised that diversity in STEM is more than just a ‘binary’ issue. It should encompass all kinds of diversity such as academic and ethnic diversity. In practice, we should look beyond the face value of traditional factors such as (and dare I say it) high impact journals. Instead, we should contextualise research based on circumstance and promote all kinds of research outcomes.
For example, if you’re conducting research in a developing country with limited funding, your research would likely be dictated by topics that would quickly and radically improve the country’s social and economic condition. However, such research would unlikely result in a ‘high impact’ publication. But does that diminish the quality or impact of the research? I don’t believe so.
Looking forward, the STEM landscape is at the precipice of change and we have the power to shape the future. As a sector, we must be cognisant of showing not telling and turning our values into action.
The Nobel Laureates
Now earlier in this post, I mentioned the zeal of the Nobel Laureates. This is 100% true. But what are they really like as humans?
They’re exactly that. Nobel Laureates are, in fact, just humans.
This means that like us, they are also fallible.
For some, mistakes were made and that resulted in unfortunate incidents (one in which I was on the receiving end of but I won’t discuss further) and for others, their human quality impressed you more than anything they had achieved in their career. It’s the latter that I choose to focus on.
Dr. Peter Agre was one of those amazing human beings and easily one of my favourite Nobel Laureates that I met. Peter was awarded his Nobel for discovering water channels and has had a prolific career as a medical doctor and a long-serving science diplomat. He was also diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease 10 years ago. Yet, despite everything that he has been through, his gentility, humility, and positive outlook on life moved me to tears. What was his greatest accomplishment in life? Peter responded without hesitation, his marriage to his wife.
The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings are truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For me, the drawcard is actually the young scientists, not the Nobel Laureates. And if you’re from Australia, you will come back with treasured memories featuring your Lindau Aussie family. So if you’re passionate about science and interested in meeting incredible scientists, applications for #LINO72 are open! Feel free to reach out if you have any questions.
What are your thoughts on diversity in STEM? Let me know in the comments below!
I would like to thank the Australian Academy of Science and the Science and Industry Endowment Fund for making this trip possible. All views are my own.