Editorial - Some Thoughts on the Pursuit of Success in Science

By Charles Weissmann

When a student asked me how to go about becoming a successful scientist, I was led to reflect on what success in science really means.
  Doubtless, correctly answering an important question scores as a success. Mostly, these questions are solved in small steps, as in the elucidation of the mechanisms of protein synthesis; only rarely does a single individual or team reach an answer in one fell swoop, as in the case of DNA structure. Often the key to success is to be at the right place at the right time to tackle an answerable question. The right time may be the most critical element, because if one is too early, the theoretical foundations or the necessary methods may not yet exist, and if one is too late -well, we all know what it feels like to read the solution of one's problems in the latest issue of Nature or Cell(1).
  More often than not success follows in the wake of a fortuitous observation made in the pursuit of other goals, such as the discovery of ribozymes or introns, or of the invention of a new methodology. Most major breakthroughs have come about when new techniques became available, sometimes as a consequence of developments in other fields. Thus, only the generation of radioisotopes allowed the biochemistry of protein and nucleic acid synthesis to be elucidated, the invention of polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis(2) enabled DNA sequencing and the invention of recombinant DNA technology and PCR paved the way to eukaryotic genome analysis, a task long believed to be insoluble.
   Sometimes, however, success comes from the development of a novel concept or theory such as the theory of evolution, of genetic information transfer by messenger RNA, or of expression control by repression; these then lead to fresh insights(3) and new experiments(4). Yet, whatever the accomplishment, convincing one's peers of its correctness and importance, both in written(5) and in oral(6) presentations, is an essential component of being successful, because otherwise the achievement cannot serve as foundation for further insights and advancement of knowledge(7).
  As one matures, another form of success gains priority, namely the development of one's students into independent and creative scientists. While most scientific papers have a half-life of only a few years, that of one's students is usually considerably longer.
  A final word about success and recognition(8): only a chosen few achieve scientific breakthroughs which result in fame(2,9), but all of us have the opportunity of enjoying the excitement of a successful experiment and collecting the pebbles of facts which are ultimately integrated into the edifice of knowledge.


1) At a Saturday morning Progress Seminar one of my graduate students was presenting his results and had to deal with the unfortunate fact that very similar results had just previously been published in Cell. He solved his problem by ending with the words: "My results were preconfirmed by Taniguchi".

2) By whom?

3) Even well-known facts, when viewed from a different perspective, can lead to a novel interpretation - Kuhn's"change of paradigm". This is illustrated by the story of the man sitting on the roof of his house during a flood. A rowboat approaches and the rescuer shouts for the man to join him. "No thank you, don't worry about me, I have been a God-fearing man all my life and God will take care of me". The waters rise further and a motorboat comes by. Again the man refuses to be rescued because God will look after him. Finally the water reaches the rooftop, a helicopter comes by and the pilot shouts for the man to join him, else he will drown. The answer is again not to worry, God will take care of him. The waters rise further, the man drowns and comes to heaven. He is furious and demands to see God immediately. "How could you do this to me" he complains "All my life I have prayed to you, served you faithfully and obeyed your commands, and at the end you let me drown". "What do you want from me?" answered God, "I sent two boats and a helicopter".

4) When I once suggested an experiment to one of my graduate students he looked at me wide-eyed and exclaimed, "But Professor, this has never been done before".

5) Sol Spiegelman recommended the rule 'one result - one paper' to make sure the reader got the point. Spiegelman also observed that anything worth publishing once is worth publishing many times.

6) Ten rules for giving an oral presentation: (1) Have your talk scheduled early in the session - when running overtime you will not be competing with lunch or dinner (2) Devise a catchy title ('Sex and the single worm' rather than 'The role of gon-2 in the development of gonads in Caenorhabditis elegans') (3) Use the bathroom before starting your talk: An empty bladder is more important than a full head (S. Spiegelman, 1969) (4) Start out by telling the audience what you will say, then say it and end up by explaining what you said (5) Focus on the dumbest-looking member of the audience and explain your message until he shows signs of understanding (6) When members of the audience start nodding off, call for the lights and tell a relevant joke. If successful, laughter will wake up the sleepers (7) Never introduce a slide with the words "This slide only shows..."; the audience is anyway wondering why most of your slides are being shown (8) Don't be self-deprecating - your audience will do the job better than you ever can (9) Make sure to quote the relevant work of all scientists present in the audience (10) If you don't understand a question from the audience, start out by saying "This is a brilliant question"; after this, the questioner won't care very much what you answer.

7) But don't overdo it or you will fall prey to the W-cycle: After doing good work, you are invited to meetings, preventing you from doing further good work, resulting in no further invitations, which will again allow you to do good work and so on.

8) The Talmud (Erubin, 13B) says: "If you pursue fame, it will flee from you but if you flee from fame, it will follow you". To this my father added: "But don't run too fast".

9) Andy Warhol commented that everyone should enjoy15 minutes of fame. One's name is remembered longer if it is attached to a method or a model. When a young scientist was introduced to Francis Crick he exclaimed "Oh! I always thought your first name was Watson".


I thank Dr. Benno Müller-Hill for referencing the Talmudic quotation.

(Published as a Guest Editorial in Biological Chemistry, Vol. 379, pp. 235-236, March 1998 - Copyright © by Walter de Gruyter & Co - Berlin -New York)