The Nobel Prize: history and tips for laureates-to-be

June 29th, 2017 will mark the 117th year of the Noble Foundation. Nobel Prizes have been awarded since 1901.  I will highlight some important background information about the Nobel Prize and some personal advice, which are completely evidence based (well maybe not all).

A little bit of history 

While people leave their estate and wealth to family and relatives, Alfred Nobel had a different plan. After much controversy and 5 years after his death, his will was fulfilled- his estate and wealth went to establish “prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind”.  Who was this generous contributor? Alfred Bernhard Nobel was a Swedish chemist and engineer, infamous for inventing dynamite.

There are six Nobel institutions: Physics, Chemistry, Economics, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, and Peace.  The physiology or medicine is at the Noble Assembly at Karolinska Institutet with 50 members, and 5 Nobel committee members.  Except for the Nobel Peace Prize that is awarded in Norway, Sweden hosts all other Nobel Prizes.

The individuals and organizations who have been honored by this Prize are ones who have altered the world we now live in.  881 individuals and 23 organizations have been awarded from 1901 until 2016.

Do you envision getting this noble prize (pun intended)? Why shouldn’t you? It is an honorable prize that has so far rewarded individuals that have caused a major shift in their perspective field or have done remarkable work in advocating for peace.

Here are some tips to get to that level:

Start working now!

The average age of Nobel Prize winners is 59 years, with the oldest being a 90-year old, and the youngest being the renown Malala Yousafzai who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 at the age of 17. While we are on the topic of age, the turnaround time from discovery to recognition can vary from 20 to 30 years so besides working to advance your field, make sure you live long enough to receive it.

Be a Man…

No, it is not an encouragement nor is it a sexist implication. Out of 881 individuals, ONLY 48 females (49 times, with Marie Curie receiving the Nobel Prize twice, one in Physics and one in Chemistry) have been awarded the Nobel Prize. That is 5.4%. But worry not, 19 of these women were awarded between 2001 and 2016 so about 40% were awarded within the past 15 years in the 117 years the prize has existed. We are getting there.  On a more serious note, though Rosalind Franklin was cheated out of the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA, more women are getting recognized so don’t let history discourage you.

Work in a Nobel laureate’s lab

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.  According to this PhD tree project, about 65% of Nobel prize winners had a Nobel prize winner as their advisor at one point in their career.  And the 35% that were not ‘fortunate’ enough to have such an advisor? Well, they did good research! This brings me to my next and last point.

Breath, eat, and dream research!

Except for the Nobel Peace Prize, all the other Nobel laureates have received the Prize for their work in research. These people are extraordinary people and to some extent insane (in a good way) where they have reached the stage of experimenting on themselves (check out Ralph Steinman, a 2011 Nobel laureate who used himself as a guinea pig, all in the name of science).

I will leave you with two quotes of encouragement from two laureates.

Ideas do not always come in a flash but by diligent trial-and-error experiments that take time and thought. – Charles K.KAO (received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009)

If I may offer advice to the young laboratory worker, it would be this: never to neglect an extraordinary appearance or happening. – Alexander Fleming  (received the Nobel Prize in Medicine/Physiology in 1945).

Stay tuned, lovely people!

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