"The whole point of science is to get other people involved...When people come up for tenure at Harvard, one of the questions raised is: Has this person trained people who have gone on and set up their own labs?" Roberts says. "In essence: What have your scientific children done?"
Searching for Science's "Disciples"
How does a graduate from a small, midwestern liberal arts college end up in charge of hiring scientists and professors for one of the most prestigious medical schools and cancer research institutions in the world? Ask Dr. Tom Roberts '70, Chairman of the Department of Cancer Biology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Dean for Graduate Education at Harvard University.
Roberts, who also serves as Professor of Pathology and Chair of the Division of Medical Sciences at Harvard Medical School, says it all goes back to fundamentals. As a post-doctoral student at Harvard, he was often impressed with how much his colleagues knew-their pure ability to recall obscure facts in just seconds. Surrounded by people who could retain the most minute of details, he often wondered whether he could make it, whether he had what it took to become a research scientist capable of making a difference in science's war on disease. However, as he began to take exams he found that he had been well-prepared to tackle the problems presented. He knew the fundamentals of problem solving, of analyzing a problem and clearly stating possible solutions. Wabash teachers such as Professor of Chemistry John Zimmerman had instilled in him a desire to advance beyond the mere memorization of facts; they inspired an insatiable thirst to learn and to constantly attack problems. As his confidence grew, so did his feeling that he had been well-prepared to "take that next step."
Now he sits on the other side of the lab table. He has to gauge whether or not young men and women are ready and capable of taking their "next step" to help lead research on one of the deadliest diseases the world has ever known or to teach others the techniques on how to do so. He is looking for intellectual leadership, people who will take an idea and run with it on their own; people who can communicate their thoughts and ideas to their colleagues, students, and the scientific world.
A lack of enthusiasm, though, is sure to remove you from his potential employment list.
Roberts knows that without enthusiasm, a budding scientist will soon be frustrated that only one in 10, or at best, one in five scientific experiments actually lead to a result which can be published. Interviewees must demonstrate that same insatiable thirst to accept new challenges. "When we're hiring at the faculty level, we're looking for someone who broke new ground in their previous research, who figured out a new way to do something," Roberts says. "Not only did they figure out a new technique, but they have had to use that technique to answer some fundamental question."
Yet Roberts believes the challenge of becoming a leading researcher does not end in the compilation of articles in distinguished publications, the development of new methods to solve fundamental problems, or even the discovery of a cure for a deadly disease. Roberts insists that "the whole point of science is to get other people involved."
Suppose that Louis Pasteur had not bothered to teach anyone his pasteurization techniques, had not bothered to explain how he discovered streptococcus or pneumoccus, had not inspired his "disciples" to go out and build their own labs to build upon his work and tackle new medical problems. Pasteur not only discovered new techniques to kill viruses, but he also taught and inspired others to do the same type of groundbreaking work.
Over 100 years later, this is still an integral part of being a scientific leader. It is so integral, in fact, that your job at a world-renowned research institution can depend on it: "When people come up for tenure at Harvard, one of the questions raised is: Has this person trained people who have gone on and set up their own labs?" Roberts says. "In essence: What have your scientific children done?"