More than 200 Pew Biomedical Scholars were gathered in a hotel ballroom earlier this year for the 20th anniversary reunion of the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences. It’s fair to say that they were excited. They were already veterans of annual meetings during their four-year Scholar period (attendance is expected), and many of them had attended previous alumni meetings. They looked forward to hearing their peers present work in progress, scientists outside the program give talks, and other speakers broaden their perspective by connecting the biomedical sciences to societal and policy issues.
And so it was a surprise to me to hear about some Scholars’ lack of enthusiasm for the meetings—that is, before they attend their first one. When Roderick MacKinnon, M.D. (1992 Scholar), now at Rockefeller University, was preparing to go to his first, he had his doubts.
While he appreciated the Scholar’s stipend, he also thought, “Gee, I’d much rather have the money it’ll cost to go to the meeting to do more experiments.”
He expressed this feeling when, as the first science presenter at the anniversary meeting, he began to describe his latest work. Then he added: “But I certainly have come to realize—and I think everybody here agrees—that, actually, these meetings are far more important even than the funding of the specific science that we could do at the time. They are much more important to our careers.”
MacKinnon spoke from experience. His major achievement is elucidating the structure and mechanism of ion channels. The discovery helped open up the chemistry of the cell, and for this contribution MacKinnon was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2003. During his research, he made progress by using techniques from unrelated scientific disciplines—electrophysiology, biophysics and molecular biology— but the clincher turned out to be tools from X-ray crystallography, which he mastered with the help of William I. Weis, Ph.D. (1994 Scholar), a structural biologist at Stanford University. The two had met at a Pew Biomedical Scholars gathering.
MacKinnon continues to benefit from attending the meetings and talking to Scholars, an opportunity he is afforded as a current member of the program’s National Advisory Committee. “The older I get,” the 51-year-old said, “it’s even more true.”
Science can be a highly competitive enterprise, yet here I was hearing the opposite. Is this possible? Are the valuable science updates at the meetings actually upstaged by the contacts the participants make and the resulting sharing of ideas and methods? I thought I’d explore the extent to which this attitude pervades the Pew Scholars— who now number more than 400 from nearly 200 universities and research institutions—and the various ways their personal interactions turn them into a community.
Read Full Story: A Community of Beautiful Minds (PDF)