One of the great opportunities Intel ISEF provides is the chance for students to meet face-to-face with working scientists and engineers at the top of their fields, ask them questions and gain some insight on the future that lies before them.
In a morning ShopTalk with Intel Fellows Gene Meieran and Kevin Kahn, students quizzed them on the future direction of silicon technology, computer programming, and processor architecture, and learned about the possibility of re-inventing themselves a number of times, as these men have throughout their careers. After discussing the challenges looming in advancing computer and semiconductor technology Meieran reminded them that "no one imagined we would be where we are today. People pass through those artificial barriers. The cleverness of people cannot be overestimated."
Later that afternoon, finalists lined up 30 deep to ask questions of a distinguished panel of scientists including five Nobel Laureates and a Herschel Medal winner. Students sought advice on rising to challenges, facing failure, breaking down barriers and securing research funding. They asked about role models and inspiration, about perseverance and just plain luck.
While some knew early on they were destined for scientific careers, others found their calling later. Harold Varmas, Nobel prize winner in Physiology or Medicine in 1989, holds a graduate degree in English Literature. Kurt Wuthrich, winner of the Chemistry prize in 2002, spent his youth training for the Olympics.
From Left to Right. Robert Curl, Jr., Dudley Herschbach, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Horst Störmer, Harold Varmus, and Kurt Wüthrich
A high school biology teacher from Colorado asked their opinions of the adage, "Great discoveries are not followed by Eureka, but by huh, that's funny." Most agreed that initial discoveries do come from unexpected results and that being able to interpret those results correctly is what's important. Robert Curl, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry in 1986, spoke of fortunate accidents in the lab. "We thought, this isn't supposed to happen. What does it mean?" Harold Varmus quickly added, "What does it mean? is the key phrase." Astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell went one step further. "In my case it wasn't huh, that's funny, but that's very funny." They were certain they'd made a mistake; instead they'd discovered a new type of star.
Most admitted their greatest discoveries were unexpected. "Very few of us are good prognosticators," said Varmas. "The initial findings are less important than how you interpret them."
"It's not easy to be sure, when you're a scientist," added Wuthrich. "But at some point you have to publish and present your work. If it's vigorously attacked, then you know you're on to something."
When asked if they credit inspiration, hard work, or good luck for their discoveries, Nobel Laureate in Physics Horst Stormer quickly answered, "All three." Burnell was more pragmatic. "I don't subscribe to luck. A well prepared person can encounter an opportunity, recognize it, and seize it. That will give you luck."
Independence of thought was another common theme. Dudley Herschbach, winner of the Chemistry prize in 1986, advised, "You have to be so obsessed that you keep plugging away when other people think it's foolish. If you're in love with a question, that's a sign that helps you not be concerned about othersthat this is your destiny."
"When I was a teenager, I didn't follow the fashion; I thought for myself," said Burnell. "It was a bit lonely at the time, but it prepared me for what came next as one of very few women doing physics."
Students were interested in how the scientists overcame various barriers. "You need a natural resistance to cope with failure," said Herschbach. "Like a musician you may have talent but it requires effort to master your instrument. But unlike musicians, you can play 99 percent of the notes wrong and get just one percent right to be applauded."
"Failure is bound to happen; what's important is that you learn from it," said Burnell. As for social and cultural barriers, she added, "Being a woman in science is a disadvantage, but not a disqualification. You have to be tough, and also generous."