On the Nobel Laureates and Medicine: The Secret to an Extraordinary Career

Brandon Tang PhotoBrandon Tang
University of Toronto
Class of 2018

In the same way that you should not buy a lottery ticket and expect to win, you should not become a scientist and anticipate a Nobel Prize. There are countless brilliant scientists in the world and winning the highest prize that science has to offer requires a delicate combination of good fortune, hard work—and what else? This past summer, I sought to discover the answer to this question.

The inaugural World Science Conference in Israel brought together 400 young science students from 72 different countries and 14 Nobel Laureates. As a second year medical student, I felt remarkably privileged to interview the Laureates and attend their lectures, as many landmark advances in medicine have been built upon their discoveries. I hoped that these conversations would unearth a common trait underlying their success—something more than mere brilliance or serendipity—which I could apply toward my own aspirations in medicine. What surprised me, however, was that there seemed to be no secret at all. The key to their success was clearly spelled out, with no reading between the lines necessary.

The Nobel Laureates were utterly passionate about science and this was most apparent through their dedication. Years after winning the Nobel Prize, Dr. Ciechanover continues to work on his days off, while Dr. Kornberg hopes to continue research until his final days, with no plans of retirement. As I interviewed Drs. Ciechanover and Cohen-Tannoudji, both clearly named passion as the fuel for their careers and it was obvious that even today, their engines fire with the same intensity as they did in their younger years. To them, the Nobel Prize was an accomplishment only made possible by their intrinsic drive.

The inspiration I drew from the Nobel Laureates, however, slowly shifted to concern as I reflected on my own career ambitions. Can pragmatic goals exist alongside passion? My colleagues and I have long dreamed of careers in medicine, but dreaming alone did not get us into medical school. We worked hard and most of us planned careful paths to where we are today. Now, many have already begun forging their path toward competitive residency programs, the next stage of becoming a doctor. Our society demands pragmatism, as accomplishments are the currency for career advancement.

I wonder if too often we work with laser focus toward a goal, telling ourselves that personal fulfillment will follow afterwards. I do not believe that passion can be shelved and retrieved so easily in this manner; it would be lost along the way. When aspiring doctors begin medical school, most are rosy-eyed, keen, idealistic, and passionate. But over time, these views are slowly pushed aside as the concerns of everyday life flood our thoughts, such as the stress of work and uncertainty of the future. Compared to the general population, medical students, residents, and early career physicians are all more likely to experience burnout [1]. Pragmatism trumps passion in our psyche.

Yet passion seemed necessary for the Nobel Laureates to lead such extraordinary careers and I believe that this is a general imperative for all challenging work. In the face of failure, opposition, and personal sacrifice, a love for your work can empower you to overcome these obstacles by providing the context for your goals.

A successful career requires both pragmatism and passion. The former is like a roadmap, helping us to navigate complex career paths by developing goals and making plans to achieve them. On the other hand, passion is what motivated us to set out in the first place and is the fuel for our journey. While pragmatic concerns occupy most of our daily thoughts, we must not let them exhaust our passion. We cannot lose sight of our intrinsic motivation and the reasons we are on this journey. The source of passion will be different for everyone, but keeping these flames burning is the key to success. For me, when the work feels unbearable and the stress is unrelenting, I hope that I will be able to recall the day I was accepted into medical school: how I cried reading my acceptance email, feeling that dreams do come true.

Brandon is a medical student at the University of Toronto who is passionate about teaching, education, and medicine. He aspires toward a career as a physician educator or teacher. Please feel free to email Brandon at bran.tang@mail.utoronto.ca or follow him on Twitter @DrBrandonTang.

References

  1. Dyrbye, L. N., West, C. P., Satele, D., Boone, S., Tan, L., Sloan, J., & Shanafelt, T. D. (2014). Burnout among US medical students, residents, and early career physicians relative to the general US population. Academic Medicine, 89(3), 443-451.

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