By Mohamed Boudjelal
The factors marking the similarities between a scientist, sportsperson and a politician are their ability to produce results, cut to the chase, lead and follow what inspired them the most. The characteristic that distinguishes the scientist from the rest, is the eagerness to discover how a certain phenomenon came about, and what is its purpose. The scientist aims to implement the gained knowledge to benefit humankind, living organisms and the universe in health, wealth, culture and sustainability. To reach this end, a scientist needs to acquire and possess certain qualities, skills and behavior regardless of his/her discipline. Based on my own experience working with successful scientists in the USA, Europe and Middle East, this short article summarizes what these qualities are.
1- Working by inspiration not by the hours
The modern life has organized the human daily living ritual in such that most of us work very defined hours ranging from 32-40 hours a week. However, those who have left their marks in the history books, worked well beyond this schedule whether they were scientists, artists, sportspersons, politicians, writers and the like. They all shared one common quality: working by inspiration and not by the hours. When working at or simply visiting research institutions around the world such as Harvard, MIT, MaxPlank, Karolinska, Imperial college, Welcome trust, SGC in UK and many others, one commonality that attracts your attention is this work ethic. Whether you show up during the day, the night, weekdays, weekends and holidays, there’s someone always there working to make their vision a reality. Adding to this is that there’s a noticeable level of satisfaction and enjoyment derived from such passion. The aspect that drives this motivation to work in the odd hours, is the discovery they are chasing. They get immersed in what they are doing and when a discovery is made, they don’t hesitate to call for a meeting at that exact moment whether it’s the night or a holiday to discuss it. True scientists simply enjoy working on something unique and undiscovered to make a difference in life. This does not mean, scientists do not have life beyond the lab walls. They share moments with their families and close friends. They strive to see their discoveries translated into practical changes in human development. In that regard, becoming a truly inspirational scientist, is to ignore the hours and work with inspiration. This lets you fall in love with your job, derive satisfaction and reward of what you are doing.
2- Eagerness to be the first to know and discover
Curiosity is an intrinsic human feature; without it our life conditions would not develop and improve. It drives every person to work on the unknown, the hidden and undiscovered. The scientist uses the quality of curiosity to ask crucial questions; how a phenomenon came about and what is the benefit for mankind and how to replicate it for human use. They become satisfied when something new is discovered and no one has described it. This is in the same sense to when an athlete breaks a world record, or a politician when solving a complicated matter to stop a war. It is this unique point of being the first to the finish line that self-motivates scientists to keep going in comparison to other industries that rely on following patterns in the markets or repeating already known knowledge. It is the key characteristic the scientist must have and develop to become a true researcher who will be able discover and develop projects that impact lives positively.
3 – Thinkers out of the box
Dreaming is essential not only to human psychology, but also to humanity’s development. It can range from insignificant fragments of imagination, to concepts which alter the course of history. From a scientific perspective, such dreams often result from a drive, whether it is to understand how disease develops, or how to cure it. As scientists we have always dreamed, even speculative ideas, if at all feasible, must be explored. For example, the idea of one day having the ability to manufacture an organ in vitro to then be transplanted; or the concept of in vitro fertilization and birthing a child without a father, or even conquering space. All these aspects were no more than an impossibility for centuries, but through scientific curiosity, and abstract thinking, these dreams are now reality. Scientists must have the ability to imagine solutions beyond what is available. To enable such creativity and imagination, a scientist must keep updated on their specialty, and expose themselves to diverse thinking approaches by travelling and working worldwide. In this line, many of us have been educated in the West, and hence our way of thinking, tactic and approach to solve a scientific question is very similar. On the other hand, scientists and researchers from the East and Middle East, see through a different lens and approach problems from a different perspective. Having experience working with scientists from different cultures would challenge our methods of working and enforce new skills, providing new solutions to discover new matters. Moreover, especially in the age of information, we can easily translate non-English works to any language enabling us to further expose ourselves to other ways of thinking. Imagination and dreams are a key success of scientists, without it, we will not discover and develop new things.
4 – Storyteller of real-life events, all are data based
Like writers and politicians, scientists tell stories based on facts and data. Unfortunately, on many occasions, the data obtained is often from experimental work, which may be surprising in such it is to the opposite of what was theorised. In such cases, most conclude that the data is negative and repeat experiments must be arranged. In other words, we avoid going deeper into those so-called negative data to understand the root cause; in reality, many times it is down to either having made a mistake in our experimental work or the data is pointing to different discovery. In this regard, no data can be deemed negative and as scientist we must ensure that what is obtained, either positive or negative, is reproducible, can be repeated, and then try to understand the message through it.
In most cases when we test a newly developed drug, it fails to show any efficacy in humans and we stop any further testing. We conclude that that drug does not work, while in vitro and even within animals it regularly produces the desired results. We halt at this stage and move on to other drugs to test.
As a scientific community, we did not come up with an approach to overcome this challenge as it is already very costly to bring a drug up to this point of testing. The negative data in this case is telling us that the disease we want to cure is different physiologically than we originally thought. One of the most important things a scientist never does, is to create or manipulate data that experiments never produce, otherwise called data fabrication to support the wanted conclusion. It is acceptable to not publish all generated data especially those that cannot yet be explained, but a true and trusted scientist never introduces data to the scientific community without guaranteeing its reproduction. In sum a scientist must be a non-biased storyteller, based on real and reproducible data to keep their integrity and reputation.
5- Driven by the positive contribution to the whole humanity
Scientists are driven by humanity’s big picture in such that they want to contribute positively for the wellbeing of humankind and the universe. The hard work, ingenuity, curiosity and imagination must translate into the scientist’s self-satisfaction such as the discovery of chemotherapy, insulin, antibiotics, stem cells etc. Nowadays the tools available for us to try answering deeper questions and challenges are attracting the brilliant to consider science. All the impactful technology, processes and understanding began through individual discoveries in the laboratory with its application only starting after. A scientist’s role within society can often be underappreciated, but without them, humanity cannot challenge themselves to progress.
Through these 5 pillars, a scientist can achieve a professional satisfaction with a balanced family life and above all being a positive contributor to human kind and universe.
Dr. Boudjelal is the Chairman of the Core Facility and Research Platforms-Drug Discovery and Development in King Abdullah International Medical Research Center, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Prior Joining KAIMRC, h was a Principal Investigator-Group Leader in GSK, and an Associate Director in Incyte Incorporation, USA. He is a former research fellow in IGBMC, France, worked directly with Prof. Pierre Chambon. Dr. Boudjelal holds a Ph.D. from Leeds University and B.sc from University Esenia, Algeria. He is the founder and president of Science Edit for the Developing World. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com