Mary-Claire King: It takes a very long time to have an important project work well, and you can only work on a project for a very long time if you love the work you do.
Zhenan Bao: If I were to start all over again, that’s what I’m going to do – that is, to first start with a big challenge that I’m passionate about.
Intro: Ideas to Innovation from Clarivate.
Neville Hobson: Since 1901, the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden, has voted to award science’s highest honour – the coveted Nobel Prize – to individuals and organizations that contribute – quote, “the greatest benefit to humankind.”
And each year since 2002, the Institute for Scientific Information at Clarivate, or ISI, has drawn on Web of Science publication and citation data to identify influential researchers in the four research areas recognized by Nobel Prizes, designated ‘Citation Laureates.’
A key purpose? To provide valuable insights – and a trusted forecast – about who might be awarded a Nobel Prize, often several years before they are recognized by the Nobel committee. It’s notable that, to date, 71 Citation Laureates have gone on to receive a Nobel Prize.
Hello, and welcome to Ideas to Innovation Season 2. I’m Neville Hobson. Through its Citation Laureates program, Clarivate recognises individuals whose research publications are highly cited and whose contributions to their fields have been extremely influential, even transformative.
This year, Clarivate named twenty world-class researchers from four countries as Citation Laureates. These are researchers whose work is deemed to be ‘of Nobel class’, as demonstrated by analysis carried out by the ISI, and who are in the running for future Nobel honours.
In this episode, we’ll hear from two of this year’s Citation Laureates who share insights into their work, how they got started, tips for young researchers, and more.
Our first Citation Laureate is Mary-Claire King, Professor of Medicine and of Genome Sciences, School of Medicine, at the University of Washington in Seattle, in the United States.
As a geneticist, she is recognized for demonstrating inherited susceptibility for breast and ovarian cancer and discovering the role played by mutations of the BRCA1 gene.
To start with, we wanted to know how it feels to be named a Citation Laureate. So we asked her.
Mary-Claire King: Well, it’s delightful. I must tell you the nicest thing about it is that I’ve been receiving congratulations from friends everywhere.
The first one came in from Turkey because of course they’re many hours ahead of us – so my first congratulatory note was from Turkish friends, and then it’s slowly moved across Europe and across the eastern part of the U.S., and then a little bit later from Taiwan. So it’s been a wonderful way to keep in touch with friends.
Neville: We asked Professor King what first sparked her interest in her field of research? What drew her in to it?
Mary-Claire King: When I was an undergraduate, I majored in mathematics. I love mathematics, but I’m clearly not talented enough in math to be a professional mathematician, and I know that very well because my brother is a professional mathematician, so I know what it takes.
I went to Berkeley in the ’60s to do statistics as a graduate student. I took the course in genetics offered by Curt Stern the last time he taught it before he retired, and I fell in love with genetics. It was beyond imagining to me that people would be paid to do this. The puzzles were fascinating, the work was useful, and it was in the service of people, and it even used some of the quantitative skills that I had. So, I transferred from statistics to genetics with the full support of everybody involved and have never looked back.
Neville: Professor King shared her insights into how the focus of her research evolved over the course of her career, and how a shift in thinking influenced her approaches and methods.
Mary-Claire King: Geneticists are in a very privileged position because we have the opportunity to work on so many different conditions across the entire range of evolution. So, I began working in evolutionary genetics, and then my focus has gradually shifted to human genetics. But they’re so closely related, it’s the same way of thinking throughout. What has changed most radically, of course, is the available technology.
Genetics is a way of thinking, and that way of thinking has been with us for 150 years now. Genomics is a set of tools, and those tools change weekly. So the capacity to answer the questions that people have been asking, as long as people have been asking questions: Why are we human? Why do we get sick? Why do we stay well?
The capacity to address those questions has changed remarkably. I’m so lucky to be working in genetics now.
Neville: We were keen to learn who inspired Professor King, personally and professionally, during her career. Often the two are intertwined.
Mary-Claire King: Scientifically, my inspirations were Dr. Curt Stern, who first introduced me to this fabulous field and the irresistible lure of genetics, and Alan Wilson, who was my PhD advisor, who helped me understand that the quantitative skills I had were useful in genetics and that I could learn to use my hands, which prior to that time I didn’t think was going to be possible for me. So those two gentlemen were marvelous.
Both deceased now, a generation apart. Alan died young, tragically.
In terms of global outlook, in terms of courage and the ability to take on difficult questions, impossible questions, my inspiration is Estela Carlotto. She’s the president of the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, the women who came together in the 1970s in Argentina, following the murder of their children and the kidnapping of their grandchildren, and determined to get them back. They drafted me into their service, which has been true now for more than 40 years. They are still active, they never give up, and they are finding their grandchildren, who of course now are people of middle age.
So some very different people with very different world views, all inspirational.
Neville: Finally, Professor King’s experiences over the years – the challenges, the opportunities, the advancements – give her a unique perspective to share advice and tips to early-career researchers in her field. What would she say?
Mary-Claire King: Two things I think are enormously important for success in any field. One is to do work that you love. It takes a very long time to have an important project work well, and you can only work on a project for a very long time if you love the work you do.
It’s important to enjoy the little successes that happen every day – a nice experiment that works out, finding a nice reference that fits into your work. It’s really critical to enjoy the process of doing the work so that when the project does ultimately work out, you can celebrate it and be ready to go on to the next.
Intro: Ideas to Innovation from Clarivate.
Neville: Our next Citation Laureate is Zhenan Bao, the K.K. Lee Professor of Chemical Engineering, and Director, Stanford Wearable Electronics Initiative (eWEAR), at Stanford University, California.
She is recognized for the development of novel biomimetic applications of organic and polymeric electronic materials, including flexible ‘electronic skin.’
And how did she feel when she heard the news of her recognition as a Citation Laureate?
Zhenan Bao: I was very pleasantly surprised, and of course, very happy to hear that news. This is based on citation, based on data.
I’m very pleased to know this news.
Neville: Synthetic chemistry and flexible electronics were driving forces for Professor Bao from the start of her career and how it’s evolved.
Zhenan Bao: During my PhD, I studied synthetic chemistry to make conjugated polymers – that’s a type of polymer that can be conductive or semiconductive – but I learned about the synthesis. When I started my independent research, I started at Bell Laboratories, Lucent Technologies at the time, and there I used my chemistry knowledge to start investigating the molecular design principles for using this class of material for making transistors.
That was the beginning of the era of flexible displays and flexible electronics, more than 20 years ago. Then when I moved to Stanford, about 18 years ago, I already saw that foldable displays were a possibility with the materials and fabrication methods we and others had been developing in the field, and companies were starting to do research and development to commercialize it.
So I decided to study something that would be further away, a more futuristic vision. So that’s when I decided to work on this new class of electronics that we called ‘skin-inspired’ electronics, where we not only make electronics flexible, but also stretchable, biodegradable and self-healable, just like human skin.
Neville: Some deep thinking about an innovation that would help people live normal lives was the spark that drew Professor Bao deeper into research, as she explains.
Zhenan Bao: As I mentioned, I’d been working with flexible electronics, so I was looking for problems where electronics with this unique form factor can play an important role that other existing electronics could not fulfill.
In a coincidence, through talking to other colleagues in Stanford, I learned that the current prosthetic hands still lacked the sense of touch and could not give patients the feedback necessary for them to live a normal life. So that made me start thinking about, ‘How can we make sensors using flexible electronic devices and the materials to help such patients to regain their sense of touch?’ And from there we started thinking we don’t have to limit ourselves to just making these electronics flexible.
We started to learn about how skin works – why skin could sense different forces or be able to differentiate objects upon touch. That inspired us to think, ‘What if we can make all the electronics just like skin?’ This can potentially completely change how humans interface with electronics or interface with our surroundings. And then further, this could be a new generation of medical devices that can allow us to measure information in a much more non-invasive way and allow us to inform about our health.
Neville: Professor Bao explains what inspiration means to her and from where she draws it, every day.
Zhenan Bao: I feel constantly inspired when I go to a research talk or have a conversation or a coffee with my colleagues or have meetings and conversations with my students. Through these discussions there could be new problems that I learn that really inspire us to think about new ideas and learn about a new field also inspires me.
Not only in my research area, but also through my experience as an entrepreneur and in a leadership position, I feel constantly inspired with people I meet on a daily basis – my staff members, the Dean, Provost, other entrepreneurs. I find that there can be so many inspirations in the everyday, in terms of what we do.
Neville: And finally, some tips for early career researchers. It’s a lot about the passion!
Zhenan Bao: Speaking from my own experience, I find it very helpful for me to think more creatively when I pick a problem that’s a big problem or a big challenge. Our society and mankind are facing a lot of challenges, from health to environment to energy crisis.
I think there are so many worthwhile problems, big challenges, that for young people, or if I were to start all over again, that’s what I’m going to do – that is, to first start with a big challenge that I’m passionate about and then think about where my own strength and unique expertise are, and then find an angle that I can contribute with my own strengths.
But work on a problem that I’m passionate about.
Neville: Two of our Citation Laureates of 2022, sharing their insights with us. We give our thanks to Professors Mary-Claire King and Zhenan Bao. Their research has not only been foundational in their fields, but also continues to evolve and expand in ways that may touch our everyday lives.
For detailed information about all of the Citation Laureates and their work, and about the program itself, visit clarivate.com/citation-laureates.
Season 2 of Ideas to Innovation continues with our next episode in a few weeks time: visit clarivate.com/podcasts for information.
Thanks for listening.
Voiceover: Ideas to Innovation from Clarivate.
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