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The Nobel Prize Winner and His Wine: Grad Student Learns Lessons in Germany

July 30, 2014

John Lee
John Lee

Earlier this summer, John Lee listened as Brian Schmidt, winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, gave a speech to a group of aspiring scientists.

The astrophysicist was understandably quite proud of his work, which had produced evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. But this man who had reached the pinnacle of the scientific profession was perhaps prouder of something else: the wine that he makes as a hobby.

And though Lee has an interest in astrophysics, it was Schmidt’s gushing about his wine that really taught him something. It was just the sort of tidbit that Lee had hoped to glean from his experience at the 64th Annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Lindau, Germany, where hundreds of young scientists chosen from around the world get the chance to interact with Nobel Prize-winning researchers.

Ancient Coins
Coins.

“What really interested me was talking to people who have reached certain points in their careers and can teach us life lessons and hand down these little nuggets of wisdom that we don’t normally think about every day,” said Lee, who’s entering the fifth year of his eight-year combined MD/PhD program at Drexel.

Lee came to Drexel because of the distinctiveness of the Medical Engineering Program, through which he is earning an MD from the College of Medicine and a PhD from the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems. After earning a degree in astrophysics from Columbia University, he decided to pursue a graduate program that could combine the subject of neuroscience with his physical-science background.

“There are very few medical school programs in the country that have the luxury of an established engineering college,” Lee said.

In this animation, professor Cameron Abrams describes a new molecule that he's developed here at Drexel, called DAVEI. DAVEI essentially neutralizes HIV, by tricking the virus into think that it's attached to a cell. The virus then spews out its contents, which float off into oblivion, rendering he virus inert.

His educational track began with his first two years of medical school, and he’s now halfway through a four-year research-heavy PhD sequence. The final two years of medical school will follow. He knows he’s in the midst of a long slog, but he gets through it in part because of his passion for his research in the lab of Simon Giszter, PhD, which aims to bring together biological therapies and robotics to develop new ways to help people with spinal-cord injuries regain the ability to walk.

“I knew coming in it wasn’t going to be a joyride,” Lee said. “I certainly have had my hardships along the way. But at the same time, there are also milestones and celebrations and things to be proud of along the way.”

His research experience made him curious how professional scientists made their careers work. How do they handle the pressures of the world of scientific research, where people can spend years trying to tackle a specialized problem and come away with only the most incremental advances? That was what he wanted to ask people who’d found success in science, and that’s what he wrote about in his application to attend the Lindau meeting.

Drexel has experienced success with Lindau applications in the past, and Lee extended that track record. For a week at the end of June and July, he got to interact with 37 Nobel laureates along with 600 other young scientists from about 80 countries.

He got the chance to see what kernels of wisdom the laureates had to hand down about finding success in science — or about how to handle failure.

“One of the key lessons I learned when I was there is that failure is not an option, but that’s because failure is inevitable,” Lee said. That means that a scientist must learn to keep his or her failures short — three days, instead of three years —and move on from them quickly.

He also enjoyed interacting with other young scientists. He recalled one dinner where he sat between one student from Australia and another from the Netherlands.

“The fact that we were all from different countries had nothing to do with our conversation,” Lee said. “We just talked about neuroscience.”

Though science was on his brain much of the time, he said that the most important lesson he learned was that everyone needs to reserve some space in their brain for something that’s not work.

Hearing Schmidt talk about his winery, he said, demonstrated that he couldn’t base his self-worth entirely on the success of his research. Professional success is only one possible piece of a happy life, and to concentrate on it as if it’s the only piece is a big mistake, he said. Take it from a Nobel Prize winner.

“He said you really need to have hobbies and personal goals outside of your research,” Lee said. “That makes a big difference in your own well-being and your own self-esteem as a scientist.”