|Cindy Liu, PhD student, Biology|
The 2011 Nobel Laureate Meeting in Lindau
According to my friend Emily, politicians should really think about using soccer to bring world peace. “Young people couldn’t help but come together and play when there is a soccer ball,” she said. I agree. But there is another human bond that also transcends race, culture, and language, and that is science. To experience this, you can travel to an annual summer gathering on a small island in the beautiful Lake Constance: the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.
For me, the journey to Lindau began with an email that read, “Let me be the first to congratulate you…” (I stopped reading at this point and froze in total disbelief). Even crazier still, I received an email a few days later from Dr. Irene Eckstrand from the National Institute of Health, my sponsor agency for the meeting, asking if I would assist in facilitating the U.S.-sponsored International Day program focusing on malaria and global health. Public speaking is not my forte, but this was not an opportunity that I could refuse! So I bravely accepted.
The itinerary for the 80 U.S. delegates attending the 61st Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting was full and über-organized. We started with a one-day orientation at the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. followed by a flight and coach ride to Lindau, Germany, where the five-day meeting would unfold. My first impression from the orientation was how similar most of us are to each other. We all stressed about coming to Lindau (because we wouldn’t be working). No one was prepared for the trip (because we all worked until the last minute). We all share borderline obsessive-compulsive traits (“I have a multiple stash of my cell lines in different deep freezers, including one super secret one at where I went to undergrad,” one guy said). Most importantly, we were all unapologetic about who we are: hard-working science nerds.
The Lindau meeting rotates between chemistry, physics, and physiology and medicine each year. Thus, it was quite fortuitous that the year I applied was dedicated to physiology and medicine: I would not have had any chance for the other meetings. This year, the U.S. delegation had many MD and PhD students, but most were PhD students. The types of research ranged from basic molecular biology to computational analysis of complex biomolecule structures, development of novel therapeutics, microbiology, and the study of a wide range of human diseases. The delegation also included representatives from U.S. sponsor agencies such as the National Institute of Health (NIH), the Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU), the Department of Energy (DOE), and Mars Inc.
After 14 hours of travel, we arrived on the island of Lindau the day before the official opening ceremony (Saturday). One of the first things we did was to pick up our badges at the conference hall, the Inselhalle. Walking into the Inselhalle for the first time was uniquely memorable. Lindau is a beautiful island with one main bustling street and many quieter, quaint side streets. Most of the streets and pedestrian paths were paved with cobblestones. To drive on the island, one needs two things: a small car and far superior driving skills than yours truly will ever have. Lindau also had many restaurants and cafes, with many people dining outside. Nearly all of the buildings there were classic Bavarian and beautifully kept. It was a place that was pleasing to all senses.
But there is more to Lindau. On the day we arrived, many of us went to one of the main attractions of the island, the harbor entrance guarded by Bavaria’s only lighthouse and a Bavarian lion sculpture. Then there it was, a huge lakeside party complete with a ramp, where a cantankerous audience and an even more enthusiastic emcee were cheering on participants riding various highly decorated objects off the ramp and into the harbor. It was fun to the zenith. Soaked in the atmosphere of the event, the engineering students in the U.S. delegation began to make rational observations. “Do they intend for those things to fly? Because the design can be better.” Somehow, I think the emcee and the crowd singing Lady Gaga at the top of their lungs had other things on their minds.
Fast forward to the opening ceremony on Sunday. My roommate and I found two seats in the front row where we sat surrounded by other eager-looking young scientists brimming with excitement. All of a sudden, the camera lights began to go off. We all turned around to look and there they were: Countess Bettina Bernadotte, the individual responsible for continuing the Lindau tradition, and William H. Gates III (Bill Gates to most people), for whom no introduction is needed. The ceremony began with Countess Bernadotte welcoming the laureates and young scientists and highlighting this year’s theme of Global Health. Next was the induction of Martin Engstroem, the founder of the Verbier Festival, and Bill Gates into the Lindau Meeting’s Honorary Senate.
This was followed by a plenary panel discussion consisting of Bill Gates, laureate Ada Yonath, and two young scientists, facilitated by none other than Adam Smith, also known as "the-voice-that-wakes-you-up-to-tell-you-that-you’ve-won-the-Nobel." In this plenary discussion on global health, the panelists shared their vision and their passion for advancing global health through their perspective field, science, philanthropy, epidemiology, and computer science. The engrossed but solemn attention paid by the young scientists showed that the bond among us was not only our dedication to scientific excellence, but also a passion to make a difference.
At the dinner after the opening ceremony, I received additional instruction from Dr. Eckstrand about what I would have to do on Monday, the first day of the meeting. This information was very helpful, but also made me extremely nervous. On Monday morning, we boarded the ship where the Scientific Breakfast titled “One World, One Health” took place. Jayodita Sanghvi, the other U.S. student, made an excellent introduction of laureate Peter Agre, who mesmerized the entire audience with his stories of how he came to discover and study aquaporins, the subject of his Nobel-winning work, as well as his current dedication to fighting malaria. Next, Dr. Eckstrand spoke on the relevance of networking and collaboration for health and social research. With the assistance of the three panelists, I was able to keep the discussions going. Everyone was shy at first, but there were at least 10 more hands in the air when, alas, we had to adjourn. Then onward to the Nobel Laureate talks, the main feature of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.
There were many exciting moments in the laureate talks throughout the week, but I will highlight some of the talks that I particularly enjoyed. It was particularly inspirational to me to hear laureates Elizabeth Blackburn and Ada Yonath at the meeting. They were both so accomplished and also extremely articulate and passionate about their work. Laureate Oliver Smithies was another of my favorites. His talk, “A Toolmaker’s Story,” was brilliantly engaging. He described earlier work that did not meet the mark (take-home point: we are allowed to do less-than-perfect work, and it’s okay). But he also described his work on inventing gel electrophoresis (“Oops, did I just do that?”) and homologous recombination of transgenic DNA with genomic DNA, his Nobel-winning work. Laureate Christian de Duve gave another inspirational and moving talk in which he challenged the young scientists to make our work relevant to the perils faced by the world today. Roger Tsien’s talk on engineering fluorescent molecules was both exciting and also very, very pretty.
Other particularly fond memories I have are the plenary lecture sessions. The multiple concurrent plenary lecture sessions took place each afternoon and only young scientists and the laureate were allowed. In these intimate meetings the discussions are usually very open and personal. They ranged from asking more in-depth questions about the laureate’s personal lives and experiences to questions on mentorship and career decisions. And, of course, there was the occasional excited young scientist who asked very detailed scientific questions.
This was certainly one of the most special scientific and educational experiences in my training thus far. It was wonderful to get to know other scientists from all over the U.S. and the world, making it a unique bonding and reaffirming meeting. It was deeply humbling to meet other young scientists (many younger than I am, mind you) who were so motivated and driven to make a contribution to the world. Judging by the questions they asked, it was clear that they recognized their role as citizens of the world.
In my Lindau application, I had written that “I do not believe in achieving scientific success through imitation, but I believe that any successful scientist stands on the shoulders of giants. It is this process of curating knowledge to power imagination and discovery that I strongly desire.”
And there it was. Science was the language spoken at Lindau, and we all (young and old) shared our knowledge and life stories in it.
—Cindy Meng-Hsin Liu,
PhD student in Biology