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The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings are annual conferences where some of the brightest minds in science converge to exchange knowledge, foster collaboration, and inspire the next generation of researchers. These meetings are held every year in the idyllic town of Lindau, Germany since its establishment in 1951 by Count Lennart Bernadotte, a Swedish philanthropist, and Lindau physicians Franz Karl Hein and Gustav Wilhelm Parade. Since then, the meetings have become an esteemed tradition, attracting laureates from physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, peace, and economic sciences. The scientific program includes laureate lectures and panel discussions as well as more interactive sessions like science walks, laureate lunches, and open  exchanges which bring together one Laureate with a small group of young scientists without a scheduled topic. So young scientists can ask about the science itself, the behind-the-scenes stories, but also political, or personal and career-related questions. Over the past 70 years, the meetings have evolved into a renowned gathering where laureates share their knowledge, mentor young scientists, and foster collaboration, contributing to the advancement of scientific research and inspiring generations of researchers worldwide.

This year, two young researchers from the Berlin Institute of Health at Charité (BIH) took part in the 72nd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting that is dedicated to Physiology and Medicine. Dr. Robert Lorenz Chua is a postdoctoral researcher investigating molecular mechanisms of respiratory and fibrotic diseases with high-resolution transcriptomic profiling techniques like single-cell RNA-sequencing and spatial transcriptomics. He works in the Intelligent Imaging research group headed by Prof. Dr. Christian Conrad. His participation was supported by Boehringer Ingelheim. Julius Upmeier zu Belzen is a PhD student in the group of Prof. Dr. Roland Eils at the Center for Digital Health and builds interpretable machine learning models to investigate genetic disease risk in large population cohorts. His participation was supported by the Bayer Foundation.

A week later, the two look back at the meeting:

Lorenz (L): So Julius, that was a very intense but exciting week, wasn’t it?

Julius (J): Yes, definitely! It was super open and international, very interdisciplinary, and the laureates were really  approachable. It was amazing to see how science brings people together across national borders but also career stages. What was your personal highlight with a Nobel Laureate?

L: I believe a lot of people would agree with me on this one. Frances Arnold’s lecture on the directed evolution of enzymes, which earned her the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, was truly spectacular. It can even serve as a great case study of effective communication to a wide audience, telling an engaging story packed with amazing science. You can find the lecture in the mediateque. However, what resonated with me the most was her final message - “be an agent of positive change through your science.” Growing up in the Philippines, I have always been aware of the many challenges that life can throw at you, and I made it a personal mantra of mine to ensure that my research has a positive impact on people’s lives. So, it’s truly inspiring to see a scientist as distinguished as her dedicating herself to and advocating for the improvement of the human condition. Similarly, Shwetak Patel, winner of the 2018 ACM prize in Computing, later made a similar statement in his lecture on the applications of AI on wearables for health, vowing to choose scientific questions and to developing technologies that will decrease health disparities in the world instead of increasing them. Who was yours?

J: Well, one of my favorite ones was the open exchange with Richard Roberts who discovered splicing and has spent most of his career at New England Biolabs, but is also a very successful activist. So, in addition to the great science he does, he translated his research into commercially available products (mostly restriction enzymes) that are crucial for molecular biology today, and he is using the platform the Nobel prize gave him to influence politicians to act more humanely and to take science seriously.

But I also want to mention Ada Yonath who figured out the structure of the ribosome and discussed the origins of not just ribosomes but of life in her sessions. She shared some of her experiences raising her daughter while she was doing Nobel-prize worthy research, something many of the young researchers were very happy to hear.

And how about the other participants?

L: Yes, it was a really special experience to be in the presence of the most celebrated scientists in the world. There’s no doubt about that. However, I do think that what made this meeting special is the fact that hundreds of talented young scientists from all walks of life were there. That for me made the difference! I’ve met and connected with people from Australia, Pakistan, India, Turkey, Germany, Brazil, Taiwan, the US, and many others. More importantly, it was good to hear that our generation of scientists want to pave out positive changes in science. We’ve had extensive discussions about diversity, equality, mental health, and so on. So I’m very happy that our generation has this progressive perspective and that we’re not afraid to discuss such topics openly. For example, I applaud our fellow young scientist delegate who spoke up to a Nobel Laureate who claims to experience “anti-male discrimination” with the current systems in place in science. Honestly speaking, I think that the next generation of scientists will need to continue being outspoken and brave, just like her, to see any progressive changes in science because there will always be some resistance to it. So yes, I’m proud to be part of this generation of scientists! What were your impressions on our fellow delegates?

J: I can only agree on the great discussions about the systems we work in to pursue our scientific work. It was great to see that our peers think about these questions around how to approach scientific careers in similar ways, but also how these discussions differ internationally. And of course it was fantastic to see how well the young scientist refuted the ‘anti-male bias’ claim, I think she had a great point, and I wish there were social scientists in these discussions in the future.

The young scientists were fantastic – I learned a lot in the Next Generation Sessions, and was super impressed by the groundbreaking work some of them had already done in just a few years.

 I quickly wanted to mention that with Morton Meldal, there was a Laureate at the meeting, who had previously participated as a young scientist, and after seeing some of the presentations I would not be surprised if others will follow in his footsteps.

Looking back to the meeting a few days later, do you think it will change your scientific work or your approach to it?

L: While there haven’t been significant shifts in my overall perspective or scientific approach, I’ve certainly gleaned some valuable insights from the Nobel Laureates. However, it’s important to keep in mind that we should approach their advice with a grain of salt, recognizing that their perspectives are based on their extraordinary life experiences and may not apply to everyone. With that being said, one recurring theme emphasized by many of the Laureates is the importance of asking “good” scientific questions. Rolf Zinkernagel, who discovered how the immune system detects virus-infected cells, specifically stated that, “There are some people who can do a technique, and there are other people who have a question. My advice is simply to have a good question you want an answer for.” He continued speaking about blindly using fancy techniques which will only land you a publication in a “crappy” journal, to which the room filled with laughter. I think this is a very good reminder for all of us working with the latest technologies that we shouldn’t just be applying them because it’s “fashionable” but should rather use them to answer biological questions of value.

Aside from this, I just want to quickly mention, that it was inevitable for us to network with our peers during the breaks. It was great to hear what other people were doing in other parts of the world and their perspectives on my research. By chance, I happened to talk to others that work on pulmonary fibrosis, COVID-19, and spatial transcriptomics, and we’ve decided to keep in touch after Lindau. It’s crazy how these were just random encounters! And how about you? Do you see changes in your scientific work post-Lindau?

J:  Definitely! Seeing the laureates and young scientists speak out about injustices and stand up for basing politics more on science was really impressive to see and inspired to look into these topics a lot more. And regarding specific scientific projects, I am already in contact with four other participants I met in Lindau to discuss different project ideas, where we can apply their methods on our datasets and vice versa or combine software engineering projects we have been working on independently so far. For these exchanges it was fantastic to meet people from different fields and institutions, so there really is a range of different projects. So, I hope, we can follow up on this conversation at some point in the future and report on a cooperation that was started in Lindau.