matsushitaMai Matsushita
Kobe University
Beyond the Nobel Week: The Possibilities of Pioneering

December 2008: While the respective Nobel Committees continue to honour those who, in the tradition of Alfred Nobel’s last will, "have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind", through my participation in this year’s Stockholm International Youth Science Seminar (SIYSS) as a prospective researcher, I also left this honourable occasion with valuable insights and inspirations for my future career in science.

This year, the Nobel Prize for physics awarded three Japanese-born researchers: Prof. Nambu, who was unfortunately unable to attend the ceremony, for the discovery of "the mechanisms of spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics"; Profs. Kobayashi and Maskawa for their Kobayashi-Maskawa model which discovered "the origin of the broken symmetry which predicts the existence of at least three families of quarks in nature". Having attended the Nobel lectures held by Profs. Kobayashi and Maskawa, there were two things that struck me. First, Prof. Maskawa stressed the importance of keeping an open mind while sticking to your own track. This balance is illustrated in the time-scale of their thesis which, for instance, took three decades to verify experimentally, but on the same hand they remained confident and loyal to their theory. The second is not based explicitly on their research per se but on the historical context of their projects. The early years of postwar Japan was not the densely interconnected Japan in the senses of globalization of the present. Thus, against this backdrop in which foreign collaboration was neither easy nor economical for their research, Prof. Kobayashi repeatedly mentioned the continuous "unique contributions" made by other domestic researchers. The reason for being able to remain loyal to their theory perhaps reflects their confidence in pursuing their theory in difficult times.

In medicine, three researchers were awarded for two different discoveries in the area of virology which then made great impacts on public health. Prof. zur Hausen, who shared half of the prize, was awarded "for his discovery of human papilloma viruses (HPV) causing cervical cancer". The earlier studies of cervical cancer were thought that it was caused by herpes simplex type 2 viruses. Prof. zur Hausen however challenged this contemporary dogma by proposing the association of HPV infections in cervical cancer. After ten years, he then succeeded in isolating and cloning different strains of HPV that were associated with cervical cancer which now provides vaccines for prevention against these carcinogenic strains of HPV. The other half of the award was given to Profs. Barre-Sinoussi and Montagnier "for their discovery in human immunodeficiency viruses (HIV)". As one of the largest public health problems worldwide, research for determining the causative agent for HIV was critical at the time of their research. While other competitors searched through blood samples, both laureates focused on lymph node samples from patients with lymphadenopathy characteristics of the early stage of acquired immune deficiency. After detecting the causative agent as a retrovirus, they referred to themselves as being "lucky" in a sense as they drew attention to a different approach from other competitors. Given their competitive research area, the major difference that separated them from their competitors was that they used alternative approaches, as well as their ability to collaborate with other researchers worldwide.

The prize for chemistry was split amongst three researchers, to Prof. Shimomura for his discovery and development of green fluorescent protein (GFP), and to Profs. Chalfie and Tsien for their development of GFP as genetic markers, which opened a new horizon in contemporary bioscience. On his discovery, Prof. Shimomura spoke of the significance of continuously challenging as a researcher, and Prof. Chalfie also emphasised the importance of keeping an open vision beyond one’s field of research which led to how he came to use GFP as a genetic marker. What all three laureates had in common was that they were pioneers for the discovery and usage of GFP, of whose research then opened the new possibilities for others. Moreover, they all pursued their goals, believing in the potentials of their research.

Beyond the Nobel Prize underlies the raison d’etre of a pioneer, as all of the laureates in these different fields continuously confronted their theories through beliefs in prospects for their research. Whilst discoveries may take years to confirm, which were the cases for Profs. Kobayashi, Maskawa and others, fidelities and flexibilities were one of the notable separations between these laureates from their competitors. Furthermore, as Prof. Chalfie emphasised, choosing supportive and enthusiastic mentors and colleagues are important in maintaining high devotions. As globalisation breaks down barriers in research, worldwide collaboration broadens the field of vision, which adds to the development of new and pioneering ideas. It is thus, the mindset and environment that shapes the foundation of a pioneer.

I gratefully thank The Science and Technology Foundation of Japan for providing me the opportunity to participate in this year’s SIYSS as a delegate of Japan. I also thank the members and coordinators of SIYSS for making this event more than unforgettable, and show my appreciation to the members of the Embassy of Japan as well as the NHK Japan Broadcasting Corporation for their sincere understanding and recognition. So what I learnt here was an underlying foundation for research, something along the lines of Albert Einstein, but of course, among others who follow their passion of research "to raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science."

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