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Vanderbilt students meet and mingle with Nobel prize winners

By Emily Waltz
September 12, 2002

Fifteen graduate students leaned forward in their chairs, making sure to catch every word of the Nobel laureate’s story. Willis Lamb, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1955, told his captivated audience about his experiences with legends like J. Robert Oppenheimer and Max Born, and his lifelong work in science. He spoke slowly and quietly, and the students couldn’t get enough of it.

That was just one scene from the 52nd meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany. Held the first week of July, the meeting is designed to bring together Nobel Prize winners, young scientists and students from around the world in a relaxed atmosphere that encouraged them to network and get acquainted. The event also attracted media attention that contributed to the public understanding of science.

Laura Swafford, research assistant in physical chemistry, and Jonathan Sprinkle, research assistant in electrical engineering, were among 600 young scientists chosen to hobnob with seventeen Nobel laureates in chemistry, physics and medicine. After nominations from Vanderbilt, Swafford and Sprinkle were chosen by different sponsors of the event: Swafford by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Sprinkle by Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU).

According to Swafford and Sprinkle, laureates lectured each day, but most came without a lesson plan and took questions from the student audience instead. Students could find one-on-one time with the laureates by staying after lectures to ask questions. Answers were often more than ten minutes long, Sprinkle said.

A German buffet held the first evening for all of the participants drew a crowd for a night of dancing and mingling. Students were also treated to a guided tour of Lindau, located on Lake Constance, and a concert at the City Theater during their trip.

Joining Swafford and Sprinkle were doctoral students from the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Norway, Poland, Switzerland, Venezuela, and other students from the U.S. The variety of ethnicities evoked amusing and sometimes heated discussions during the five-day event. Laureates sat down with the students for lunch and dinner each day to chat or argue – whichever they preferred.

“I sat with Sir Harold Kroto and his wife at a picnic lunch,” Swafford explained. “Sir Kroto got into a heated discussion with the student sitting next to him about the integration of religion and science. But both of them were the type who could do that – just yell at each other without any hard feelings,” Swafford said. “Meanwhile, the rest of us had a very nice conversation with Sir Kroto’s wife.”

George Olah, who received the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1994, stirred up a large audience at his lecture on global warming when he proposed that nuclear power was the only viable alternative to fossil fuels. “You just can’t say that to 600 graduate students from around the world and expect them to smile and nod,” Swafford explained.

Willis Lamb was Swafford’s favorite: “His mind wanders and he speaks very softly – he’s 89 years old. But he was so interesting that none of us minded the fact that he always got sidetracked. There was no attacking Professor Lamb’s ideas.” To fifteen students in a small classroom setting, Lamb and his wife, who sat next to him, shared their experiences as scientists over the last 70 years. “He has met and worked with most of the greats: Born, Oppenheimer, Milliken, Bloch…and if he hasn’t met them, his wife has. She did her post doc with Einstein for five years,” Swafford recalled.

The laureates gathered before an audience at two roundtable discussions during the week. The topics were “The Role of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the Post-genomic Scientific World” and “What can Chemistry and the Scientific Community contribute in Alfred Nobel's Spirit to the Benefit of Mankind in the 21st Century.”

Like many of the lectures, the roundtable discussions turned political, leading to remarks that were inevitably provocative when delivered to such a globally diverse group. Sprinkle noted the laureates’ frequent disagreement. “Many of them had ideas on how they’d solve the problems in the Middle East if they were the U.S. president. In a way they were trying to get back to the Renaissance man – a scientist, philosopher and politician all in one. And it just doesn’t work for all scientists.”

The experience at the Nobel Laureate meeting will have lasting effects on Sprinkle and Swafford. After a few lectures from laureates and discussions with international graduate students, Sprinkle restructured a teaching method he had been tossing around for a while: “Things the laureates said confirmed a theory I’d been thinking about: the key is to get students to ask the right questions. That’s the first step. The second is to teach them to know what to do when they get the answers. It’s something I’d like to teach my engineering students,” Sprinkle said.

Trading stories with the elite group of international graduate students was also enlightening and inspirational, Sprinkle and Swafford agreed. Swafford recalled the benefits of talking with students around the world about their experiences in graduate school and in life: “I had a fascinating discussion with some Israeli students on the current Israeli-Palestinian conflicts.”

Sprinkle said that learning the teaching philosophies of the other students and the laureates was the most practical thing he took away from the meeting. He explained the responsibility he felt after listening to the laureates’ lectures: “Nobel laureates have done great things, that’s why they’re recognized. But they don’t look at themselves as the frontiersmen of science, they look to students coming out of college – to us. So they put a burden on us as the next generation to do the research and to train other people for the future.”

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Lindau meeting website


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