Imagine for a moment you could attend a scientific conference with the most distinguished scientists of the world, all of them Nobel Prize winners, who made groundbreaking discoveries that shaped your field. Imagine that conference would not attempt to satisfy the usual scientific craving for the latest results in a specialized discipline but would be dedicated very generally to topics that are relevant to all scientists, in particular to young scientists at early stages in their careers. Imagine you could freely decide the topics you would like to discuss with the Nobel Laureates and the conference would be small enough so you actually had the chance to meet everyone there and had the opportunity to go for a walk with a Laureate and ask him or her the questions that have been burning inside you for years. A conference that brings together the most distinguished senior scientists and the next generation, providing the opportunity for them to connect, inspire and learn from each other. If that sounds like a scenario from an ideal world, you should look to Lindau, a small, medieval town at the eastern tip of Lake Constance in southern Germany, where this utopia becomes reality every summer.
Since 1951 Lindau hosts the world’s most unique scientific conference and for a week the city is transformed into the scientific capital of the world. In 2018, 39 Nobel Laureates, mainly of Physiology and Medicine, met with 600 young scientists from 84 countries and I was very fortunate to be among them.
The conference is held at the Inselhalle, a modern, light-flooded building overlooking a small marina in the lake and a sunny adjacent square with white garden armchairs and flat tables. The generous and friendly foyers and hallways inside and the spacious outside of the Inselhalle generate a calming feeling of airiness and facilitate many chance encounters, making the venue a perfect match for the conference. The program followed the same motif and was clearly designed to foster an exchange between the generations.
In the mornings, the Nobel Laureates gave short lectures with topics entirely up to their choosing, but often concerning their great discoveries. For us students, this provided the spectacular opportunity to learn about some of the most groundbreaking discoveries in biology not from a textbook – as we usually do – but from the very person who made the discovery, spiced up by the occasional anecdote and personal memory. In neuroscience, for example, no living scientist has contributed more to our understanding of the brain than Torsten Wiesel. His shared discoveries with David Hubel on the organization of the visual cortex are standard material of every introductory neuroscience class. Receiving one of Wiesel’s very rare presentations on his life’s work and his collaboration with Hubel was an absolute privilege for me and a unique experience, which not many neuroscientists get to share.
The central aim of Lindau, however, is to catalyze personal interactions between Laureates and students, and this is the focus in the afternoons. Then it is possible to join a Laureate for lunch in a restaurant or accompany them for walks through the vineyards and countryside around the lake. Together with other young neuroscientists I enjoyed a casual lunch with Wiesel after his presentation. For an hour and a half, we described our research projects to him, discussed the current developments in neuroscience, and talked about the importance of asking an original and significant scientific question.
In the extensive afternoon discussion sessions that follow, students can ask a Laureate any question they want and often lively discussions develop. One of my many memorable encounters was with Steven Chu, who did not only receive a Nobel Prize in Physics, but also served as Secretary of Energy under Barack Obama and could therefore share his vast experiences not only in science, but also in policy making and allowed deep insights into his ways of working and thinking.
Of all the possibilities to engage with the Laureates during the conference, the chance encounters in the hallways were maybe the most exciting and fun and often conversations started spontaneously and many people joined in, sometimes going on for hours. Being exposed to these outstanding researchers, observing their reasoning, thinking, and argumentation and trying to understand something about their personalities was a revelation for me and a highly inspiring and – I believe – formative experience. The unique, casual, and friendly atmosphere of the meeting fosters this exchange on a personal level and eventually the realization hit me that the Laureates come because they too are interested to talk to us and because they in turn wish to learn from the young generation of scientists.
The central topics raised at the meeting concerned issues that all scientists face today and were mostly addressed in panel discussions, which featured Laureates, experts, and young scientists. Randy Schekman, who is the current editor of eLife, Harold Varmus and others fought a fierce battle with the CEO of Springer Nature over the current (mis-) developments in the publication process and how we ought to change it for the better. Steven Chu, Peter Doherty and others discussed the role and responsibility of science in a time of ‘alternative facts’ and the emerging post-factual era, at the brink of which we might be standing. From Martin Chalfie, one of the co-developers of GFP, we learned how to write the perfect post-doc application and about the pitfalls young scientists face when starting their own group. Kurt Wüthrich, one of the Laureates of ETH Zurich, and Ferid Murad, shared their experiences and opinions on successful leadership in science. Such topics rarely find a place in conventional scientific conferences and the Lindau meeting provides a unique forum to discuss them between young and distinguished scientists. Along with these discussions, receiving advice from Nobel Laureates probably doesn’t hurt one’s career and the Laureates gave it freely. Whenever asked, they tried their best to provide us with a compass to maneuver the jungle that science can appear like to a young person.
The greatest gift, however, that Lindau makes to the young scientists is the chance to be inspired by some of the greatest scientists of our era, people whose names might appear in history books. Looking back with a little distance now, I am still overwhelmed by the impressions I collected. At the same time, I’ve come to recognize that my understanding of science has evolved and I have realized that the only way to become a good scientist is to do science for the right reason, which is a deep passion and burning curiosity to solve a question that keeps you awake at night.
What is the question that keeps you awake at night?