Monday, April 13, 2020

Pedigree and Persistence

This post has been cooking for a long time.

The germ of the post (no pun intended) was planted in my head while listening to Bill Bryson’s The Body (filled with trivia like most of his books, read by him, which is great but the book is nowhere near the best of his work, cynical as it is - More on the book some other time). He writes about how the discovery of the bacterium that causes salmonella by Theobald Smith (who came up from hard circumstances), was cruelly attributed to Daniel Salmon, who happened to be the person Smith was working under. Daniel Salmon benefited from this and Smith didn’t. Thankfully Smith had a better end to his career and life. 

There’s an even more appalling story - that of Albert Schatz (also from a very poor background), who was cheated of his discovery of streptomycin and a Nobel Prize was cruelly awarded to Waksman, at whose lab Schatz had worked briefly.  Schatz was conned into waiving his royalties while Waksman didn’t sign his waiver. As a result, Schatz didn’t benefit and Waksman did, at least as Bryson tells it. Perhaps even more cruelly, much later Schatz was awarded something named after Waksman!

The point of this story is not to talk about misappropriation of credit (there are tonnes of stories like the above and not just in the Nobel Prizes) but what we end up thinking when we hear of a certain person’s pedigree or awards. I will be the first one to admit that I have been and will be guilty of this in the future. But one must be wary of putting people on a pedestal simply because their name is followed by a few alphabets. It may be a better bet to seek the opinions of that person’s co-workers/classmates. In a recent conversation with Tyler Cowen, Reed Hastings pointed out how he relies on this mechanism rather than look at people’s CVs.

Another aspect of the above stories is that of persistence. Both Smith and Schatz persisted through remarkable hardships in life to achieve significant professional successes and I am happy to report that both lived long and had long reasonably successful careers, after the significant setbacks. Finally, two sobering stories from listening to Tyler Cowen’s conversation with the remarkable Ed Boyden - one of Douglas Prasher (Doug) and the other of Brian Kobilka (BK). Doug had to abandon his scientific career due to a combination of circumstances but his work was built upon by two scientists who eventually won the Nobel Prize. To their credit, they were generous enough to invite him to their award banquet and also effusive in their thanks to him. After a long break from a scientific career, Doug made his way back to science. BK had to work as an emergency room physician on weekends when he was faced with financial hurdles early in his career but eventually his work won him a Nobel Prize. I am the first one to admit that BK’s story shows survivorship bias but that’s not why I am quoting it. Also the point of this post isn’t just to prompt some thinking but also inspire you in these difficult times (not to forget, this post serves to do that to me!). Stay focused and do not despair.

What do you think?


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