Kansas State University


Graduate School

Student describes experience as 2013 Nobel Laureate meeting participate

Elizabeth Ploetz, doctoral student in chemistry, participated in the 2013 Nobel Laureate meetings in Lindau, Germany, June 30-July 5.  She describes her experience below:

Describe your experience participating in the 2013 Nobel Laureate meetings.
Before traveling to Lindau, Germany, the U.S. delegation met in Washington, D.C., for an orientation meeting. We heard talks from representatives of the various groups funding the trip and then traveled together to Lindau for the week long 63rd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting dedicated to chemistry.

During morning sessions, several laureates gave short, formal lectures. In the afternoons, laureates held informal discussion sessions with the young researchers. Concurrently, laureates held “master classes” in which they critiqued a young researcher’s research presentation, led workshops on presentation skills and sat on panel discussions on the topics of scientific communication, chemical energy conversion and storage.

Meals were equally stimulating. The days started with “science breakfasts” on topics such as global energy, the environment and quantum information processing. One evening the U.S. delegation hosted a dinner for students from around the world, another evening consisted of an international get-together hosted by the Republic of Korea, another night we had a cookout with Lindau citizens, and one night we had a Bavarian evening upon invitation of the Elite Network of Bavaria and the Free State of Bavaria. The students and laureates ate together during these meals.

What are some highlights of your experience?
The biggest highlight of the trip was hearing the nobel laureates’ personal stories. These are the things that don’t make it into scientific journals, but from which I and the other young researchers did, and will continue to, draw great inspiration from. Some of the laureates emphasized the importance of family and extracurricular activities and some explained how they overcame criticism of their work and ideas.

What was the most memorable experience from your trip?
One of my most memorable experiences took place during a lecture and discussion session held by Walter Kohn. Kohn won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1998 for the development of Density Functional Theory, but for this meeting he had prepared a presentation about his current research. When I first walked into the room and saw the title of the presentation, “Macular Distortion-Diagnosis and Correction,” I was quite confused, but the presentation was thoroughly heart-warming and turned out to be one of my favorites.

Kohn told us how his wife was diagnosed with age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and how he had collaborated with her ophthalmologist and others, including the University of California Santa Barbara machine shop, to create a refractive contoured optical slab that reduced the macular distortion that his wife, and others with AMD, experience. This story was inspirational on many levels. Firstly, it was refreshing to see that Kohn was still engaged in scientific research many years after receiving his award. Secondly, he was also not afraid of bridging the gap between chemistry, physics and medicine. Lastly, it was touching to see the love for his wife so clearly demonstrated.

What do you think you gained—personally and/or professionally—from participating in the Nobel Laureate meeting?  How do you think the experience will benefit you in the future?
During the orientation meeting at the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C., Charles D. Pibel, a program director at the National Science Foundation, told us the story of a visit between Michael Faraday and Queen Victoria. Queen Victoria asked Faraday, “What is electricity good for?” to which Faraday reportedly responded, “Madam, what good is a baby?” Pibel then explained to us that basic science, a large portion of what the NSF funds, is like a baby. When a baby is born, no one knows what it will grow up to become. It could become a great and well-loved individual or the bane of society. However, we do not stop having babies and basic science research should not stop being funded. All throughout the week in Lindau, the nobel laureates repeated this message. Many of the laureates brought up the fact that the research they won their awards for was basic science, not applied or translational science. They greatly encouraged and affirmed those of us, like myself, who conduct basic science research.

The meeting benefited me personally and professionally because I was able to meet many excellent young researchers from around the country and the world. We exchanged business cards, we shared meals, but most importantly, we shared our challenges, our hopes and fears for the future, and our excitement about science.

What advice do you have for other graduate students about taking advantage of professional development experiences such as this one?
I would encourage other graduate students to take advantage of professional development experiences such as this one. I did not anticipate that I would actually be selected to attend the meeting, but even the process of going through the application procedure was a tremendous growth experience. I had to be introspective and also reflective on the present and possible future state of chemistry. Attending the meeting greatly expanded my network of “chemistry friends” and was unlike any other meeting I’ve ever been to or heard about. It was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity.