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Hello, I am Bruce Alberts,
I am going to talk to you very briefly today
and I'm only going to make one major point.
and that is the importance of learning from failures.
I feel like I'm quite able to do this
since I have made many mistakes in my life
I think we all do, but what I want to emphasize
today is how those kinds of mistakes
represent important learning experiences.
So if you are making mistakes or have made recent mistakes,
or some recent failures, don't be discouraged,
look at that as a way of growing
and becoming wiser in the long run.
So my first slide deals with my career as a graduate student
at Harvard from 1961-1965
and as I have described here, I had a very
ambitious goal of trying to get double-helical DNA
to replicate in a test tube.
However, I only had one enzyme available
that was DNA polymerase and we now know
that DNA replication requires many proteins.
So, I made a theory about how
this one enzyme might be able to replicate double-helical DNA
I did lots of experiments
It took me five years all-in-all
to do some of these experiments,
and basically all my experiments failed.
Nevertheless, I was told that I was ready to get my Ph.D. exam
I had done side experiments that made I thought a thesis
and I went for my oral exam at Harvard
knowing that once people have been permitted to do this,
in my department, nobody had failed in recent memory.
Well, I got a shock in 1965
and it has all been described in this paper
In Nature, I published a brief paper, a little essay
on why failing my Ph.D. exam in the end,
was an important step in making a path for a successful career.
The title is "A wake-up call"
How failing a Ph.D. led to a strategy
for a successful scientific career.
I'm not going to be able to go through
all the points here, but my failure taught me important lessons about science.
Before this time, I thought I understood how to do science
I had been remarkably successful
through luck as an undergraduate
doing an undergraduate thesis and published some papers.
Success doesn't really teach you much.
Failure teaches you a lot.
I learned several important lesson about science.
First of all, we had been misled,
those of us in my era remember
Watson and Crick had been very successful
in theoretical biology and in 1953
had predicted the DNA double helix
and we thought we could go ahead being Watson and Crick
so my thesis was really predicated on
the idea that I could solve a prediction of Watson and Crick
that there was some machinery that would allow
DNA templated heredity to replication of the DNA double helix
In fact, we know now that evolution
has created an incredibly complex chemistry
and for the most part, you have to do experiments
to figure out how it works.
Now the most important thing I learned was
critical for everyone doing science
is that having a good strategy in scientific research is
the key to success, it is really the most important
thing in doing science. There are a million times more
experiments possible in a day than you should be doing
and the critical thing is how you use your limited resources.
to do those few experiments that will make progress efficiently.
And so I spent a long time before I
took my next step in science, thinking and writing about
what I would do and why, and what I wouldn't do
and one of the conclusions I made that has proved
to be very useful in my scientific career
is that I decided that I would always do an experiment
where any answer I got would advance our scientific knowledge
to at least a small extent.
Unlike my thesis, where I was trying to see whether my
theory was right or not
and when I got all these no answers my theory wasn't right,
nobody was surprised and the results didn't really add to the
store of scientific knowledge, which is of course why I
had so much trouble with my thesis exam.
So now I'm going to tell you about a second kind of failure
which turned out to be a big success,
and that is writing the textbook "The Molecular Biology of the Cell".
In retrospect, everything you do that turns out well
looks easy, and people may be misled
about how hard it is to really make something work.
So this was a near failure in fact,
I was a young scientist in 1978 at UCSF
sitting in my office, and I got a phone call
from Jim Watson, the famous Jim Watson of double helix fame
He had the right vision, he always has the right vision,
he said that was the time to unite what we know about molecules, molecular biology
with a second field that I knew nothing about really, at that time.
It was called cell biology, but it was not what we call cell biology today.
It was descriptive molecular microscopy, light microscopy
had made lots of advances at a descriptive level, in fact this was the first time
when I was writing the text book, that I learned about
the existence of the endoplasmic reticulum, now something that we try to teach
every seventh grader in California, a big mistake,
but that is another subject for another day.
At any rate, Jim always has the right vision,
but he is so optimistic about how easy anything will be
that he convinced us to do this saying that it would
take, I think, as I remember, working 1 month in the summer of 1978
and another month in the summer of 1979.
Well, as we started to do this, we realized
that we didn't know how to write a text book,
we wrote a lot of stuff in the summer of '79 was spent 2 months in
Cold Spring Harbor, it's really hot, we worked 16 hours a day, weekends
all the authors, all five of us, and what we were
producing, we realized, wasn't really useful, at least most of it.
and so we almost decided after those two summers we worked
that we should quit. Fortunately we didn't quit!
Finally, in the summer of '81, when we were working all summer again
we finally realized we had learned to do it
and from then on, it has been much much easier.
So, again, like my experience in learning how to do science,
it took a near failure, or 'a failure', to allow us to make real progress.
Well, in the end, we did succeed.
We produced so far 5 editions of this very large cell biology text book
called "Molecular Biology of the Cell"
the first edition is the black one, one of the authors kept track of time,
we spent well over 365 days working together,
12-16 hour days, weekends.
Successive editions have been easier, we learned how do to this.
The 5th edition we finally had some fun,
here, I am at the Chilean Air Force Base in Antarctica
presenting, releasing our textbook with the other authors
to the generals on the base, I think the general is a little bit mystified
as to why we were there, but at any rate, it was great fun.
As I speak, in about a month we are about to start the 6th edition of this book.
It will be my last, but it has been a great pleasure to do this
we've not only enjoyed each other, the company of the authors
but we've learned a lot, we've learned so much about cell biology,
and it has affected all of our research
both book writing and teaching are really important for creative science, I believe.
This is what it looks like
the joy of textbook writing, and why it takes so long,
our textbook, every chapter, is read and re-written by multiple authors
the first author has a go, here I think the typing is not mine
but the ink is mine and the pencil after that is somebody else
and this is the way you create a book that actually is
better than what any one author can do.
So in ending, my failures have taught me
an important general lesson about life
and first of all, don't be disappointed when you fail.
The great thing about US society is
good failures are encouraged and not a disgrace,
because that means you are trying something new and hard
but study your failures very carefully, everybody makes mistakes
but some people make mistakes over and over again the same ones,
those of us who have been successful, never make the same type of mistake twice.
That means we think carefully about what we learned, we write it down,
and as an important general point
, this is why older people are valued as mentors for younger people,
we've made so many mistakes we have a certain wisdom
from learning from our errors
and I think mentoring younger people is a valuable experience,
which gets me to my last point,
a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, the famous wife of
US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt
she said, "Learn from the mistakes of others
You can't live long enough to make them all yourself."