The other half of a Nobel laureate

Fri, Jul 12, 2013 by Guest Blogger

English, General

Diane Wu, Participant 2013 // On day three of the Lindau meeting I stepped out of the rain into a restaurant for lunch and suddenly found myself at a table with Martin Chalfie and a group of American students. While I was dealing with the surreality of it all and positioning myself to ask him some questions I had about neural maps, a bright-eyed woman with a lilting Southern accent and a blue lanyard indicating Laureate or Relative Thereof sat down next to me. “I don’t mean to distract you from your conversation,” she said apologetically after introducing herself as Jean Evans, the wife of William Lipscomb, a Nobel laureate who passed away in 2011. But distract me is exactly what she did for the rest of the lunch, and it resulted in one of my most pleasant and memorable conversations of the week.

Jean told me that she and Bill had attended many Lindau meetings, starting in the late 1970′s and as recently as 2006, and that Countess Bettina had kindly invited her to the meeting this year. As we chatted over egg noodles and apple strudel, Jean took me on a journey through her past – playing tennis as a young girl in 1950′s South Carolina, joining a friend to “do Europe” as a doubles tennis player in her early twenties, playing in Wimbledon (!), meeting Bill at a tennis court in Cambridge (a mediocre player, but his personality won her over). 

We mused about the neuroscience of meditative states (an interest stemming from her tai chi practice), and how marriage has changed over the years. As a young woman at the beginning of the 1970′s in America, Jean had decided emphatically that she was going to be completely independent and untethered, rejecting the social conventions of her upbringing. She told me that in her time, women were “not very subtle” in their decisions and it was more of an all-or-nothing situation when it came to being dependent on a man.

I mentioned that the majority of the American students at the meeting were married or engaged, and that although I am neither, I had recently started considering decisions with my imaginary future family as a stakeholder. Jean said that she didn’t even consider starting a family until her thirties, remarking that “My life was just too interesting to pause”.

I loved that line so much that I wrote it down right there at the lunch table.

Patience, patience, patience, and optimism – these were the recurring messages that the laureates tried to get across to us young researchers. In his talk, Chalfie showed a multi-decade timeline of his group’s work on the nematode C. elegans, on which the project related to his Nobel Prize was just a little blip. Serge Haroche boiled down the necessary ingredients for scientific success to two elements: Time and Trust.

The week of talking with those from older generations gave me a new appreciation for the long view. There is very little that you can guarantee through careful planning; perhaps a better-tested path to future success is to focus on what you love most in the present. Cheers to the elders who spoke with us last week, whose lives are testaments to the lessons they shared.

Diane Wu

Diane Wu is a third year Ph D student at Stanford University researching materials with novel optical properties.

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