24 Nov 2015

65th Lindau Nobel Laureate Conference

IGH researcher Jo Fothergill tells us about her experience spending time with 65 Nobel Laureates.

Lecture given by Nobel Laureate Hamilton O Smith
Lecture given by Nobel Laureate Hamilton O Smith

I never considered that I would ever be in a room with one Nobel Laureate. Yet in a small Bavarian town, I found myself in a room with 65 of them. This was an unusual conference. Not like one I’ve ever been to before. The meeting speakers were comprised of Nobel Laureates in Chemistry, Physics and Physiology/Medicine. The delegates were 650 young scientists from around the globe.

Earlier on this year, I was lucky enough to be nominated by the Institute of Infection and Global Health and then the University to attend this meeting. I was then selected by the Royal Society and supported by the Vallee Foundation to attend the 65th Lindau Nobel Laureate Conference. The selection process was a long one but worth it.

There was a lot of advice for young researchers in my position. A key theme from many of the Nobel laureates was to identify your goal and focus on this throughout your scientific career. A healthy disregard for accepted wisdom, a little faith and an enjoyment of gambling was advice given by J Michael Bishop. The career path (or lack thereof) facing young scientists is clearly an issue worldwide. It was heartening to hear that many of the Nobel Laureates were sympathetic to this issue whilst recognising that academia has a birth control issue, producing many scientists that cannot all be supported within academia. As a scientist there is pressure to produce publications in high impact factor journals however it was pointed out that the impact factor was designed as a tool for librarians to determine how to spend their limited budget and not to measure academic contribution.

Throughout the week there were many lectures that grabbed and inspired me – too many to list them all but I would like to highlight a few. I particularly enjoyed the Antimicrobials Masterclass that I attended. The quality of the talks by young scientists was incredibly high and the discussions around these were both stimulating and informative. For me, one of the talks in particular was of direct relevance to my work. I learnt a lot from the short talk given on AhR and I hope to incorporate this thinking into some of my future research.

Harald zur Hausen gave a really interesting lecture on associations between milk and meat consumption and certain cancers. During the lecture he discussed cancers as zoonoses and potential infectious agents. As a microbiologist, this was particularly relevant to me. The idea that infection could occur early in life either leading to latent infection or potentially changes that over time lead to the development of some cancers is an idea that is well established within virology but really in its infancy in bacteriology.

Richard Roberts gave a rousing lecture on “A crime against humanity” focused on genetically modified organisms and their potential impact in developing countries. His impassioned speech was convincing and the discussions around this area (from both sides) were informative. His argument that there is nothing inherently dangerous about the GMO method is one that is hard to rebuke.

From my own background in molecular microbiology I really enjoyed the lecture by Hamilton O Smith on reducing genetic functions of a bacterial cell down to the lowest number of genes possible. This led to his team generating an artificial chromosome of approximately 450 genes. This is very different to the bacteria I work on which harbours 5-6000 genes.

Robin Warren described his journey changing the world view of Helicobacter and on disbelieving reviewers he stated “If you’ve got something really new, there are no peers to review it”. The story of Helicobacter is one that I have been very familiar with and have worked on as an undergraduate. It was fascinating to see this through his eyes and the belief that he had in the face of the disbelief of others.

Ada Yonath was a real inspiration, both as a character and a scientist. She is a strong female role model and yet appears to have maintained humility, enthusiasm and a family life. Her work, based around the ribosome but now moving into using this knowledge to inform antibiotic drug design was stimulating. This is such an important area of research and it was great to see that the Nobel Laureates continue to tackle the big questions in science.

Although many of the lectures I have described have some relevance to my specific area of research, I believe a real strength of this conference is its interdisciplinarity. I have never attended a physics conference before and yet, through the gifted communication skills of some of the Laureates, feel I understand more about these areas than ever before. The lectures allowed me to view the more unfamiliar fields of physics and chemistry through the eyes of the Nobel Laureates rather than my own uninformed eyes. However, it was not only the Nobel Laureates who inspired me during the week. I got to meet so many young scientists from around the world in a variety of different fields. Before the conference, I was not even aware of such fields as theoretical chemistry. Hearing young scientist succinctly describe their work so far and hopes/plans for the future helped me to clarify my own goals and aims too.

Luckily, there was a bit of time to relax and a few of us were taken out for a sailing trip by some locals on the lake. Everyone was so friendly and clearly enjoyed the return of the conference each year. I am so grateful for this opportunity and for the support I was given. I would encourage everyone to apply to attend this conference and given the opportunity again, would jump at the chance. If I’m honest as to the overall highlight of the week, I would have to say that it was the personal touch of having lunch (organised by the Vallee Foundation) with esteemed Nobel Laureates – getting to discuss on a one-on-one basis with them my work and being inspired by their energy.

You can find out more about Jo Fothergill and her research here.

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