For one week in March the 8th Hope Meeting with Nobel Laureates was held in Tsukuba, Japan. Emma Beckett, a PhD candidate in Food Science at UON was there and shares her experience here.

Who was there?

I was one of just over 100 young researchers from broad scientific fields (physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, engineering, even geography) from across the Asia-Pacific region and Africa. We met with six Nobel prize winners, from Physics, Chemistry and Medicine/Physiology, and two additional distinguished lecturers.

What did we learn from the Nobel Prize winners and distinguished lecturers?

Barry Marshall gave us a crash course in the role of the bacteria H. pylori in causing stomach ulcers and stomach cancer. A take away message from his talk for me was that while novel ideas might be met with resistance from your peers, that doesn’t mean your ideas are wrong.

Ada Yonath talked to us about her journey to discovery the structure of the ribosome. Prof Yonath realised she should be able to crystallise ribosomes to determine their structure using X-rays when she read a paper on polar bears and how their cellular contents rearrange during hibernation. For me this highlighted the benefits of reading outside your own research area. Having trouble getting the crystals to form so that she could do X-ray crystallography on them, she even went as far as to send an experiment to space to see if they would form better at zero gravity! Although that wasn’t the final solution, the approach showed me that sometimes have to think well outside of the square (and right off the planet!) to solve the big problems.

Serge Haroche, walked us through a history of the study of light and optics. This was a brilliant reminder to me that we don’t stand alone in or research and we are always working on a foundation laid by those who went before us.

Jean-Marie Lehn gave us an introductory lecture to his field of supra-molecular chemistry, instead of studying the bonds inside molecules, he studied the way molecules interact with each other. For me this seems so obvious now, and it’s interesting to be reminded that some of the knowledge and fields we take for granted today, at one time did not exist at all.

Makoto Kobyashi gave us a crash course in quantum physics. Although it is a complex and complicated field, he walked us through it such that it was understandable even to those of us in completely different fields. This was a great demonstration in science communication and it appears that the old saying, “explain it like you would explain it to your Grandma” can still apply even when you have a Nobel Prize.

Additionally, Tetsuro Matsuzawa talked us through his primate research and the differences in memory and learning between humans and other primates. If you have time, google his name, he showed us some fascinating videos of how they study learning and memory in non-human primates and some of the things the animals can do are very impressive, and you might need to rethink any assumptions you have that humans are “superior” to other primates.

Gunnar Öquist, not himself a noble prize winner, but a member of the committee who award the prizes, talked us through the process of selection and some of the key statistics describing the Laureates. The message I took away was to collaborate and follow the questions, rather than concentrate on “CV building”.

What did we do?

We also had the opportunity to present our own work in flash talks and poster sessions. Although this was challenging in a multi-disciplinary and multi-cultural environment, I think many collaborations were formed and it was excellent experience in the sharing of our work.

 

Hope with poster

 

We were also treated to a brilliant cultural program. We learnt Japanese calligraphy (did you know they make the ink by rubbing water on a stone?), traditional tea ceremonies, ikebana (flower arranging) and origata (Japanese paper wrapping). We were also treated to an excursion to the Tokyo Skytree, the Edo-Tokyo Museum and Asakusa, and site visits to leading research institutes inclusing JAXA (the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency).

 

HOPE 3 making tea

Hope asakusa 3

 

Why meetings like this matter?

While this all may sound like an extravagant junket for high achievers, I found it a very valuable experience that will serve me well as I continue to build my research career. The Nobel Laureates have a wealth of knowledge to share, and delegates learnt many lessons, scientific, philosophical and practical. It has helped me to start developing my national and international networks of peers. Science is a global and collaborative endeavour, and it is important to give young researchers an opportunity to mingle across borders, both in terms of nations and research fields, if we want to have a chance of solving the big problems that will face our generation and those of the future.

My trip to Japan was sponsored by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and the Australian Academy of Science.