'Take scientific risks' – Nobel Laureates

By Lynley Hargreaves 18/03/2015

Holly van der Salm
Holly van der Salm

Prize-winning scientists at an international meeting all gave similar advice, says New Zealand attendee Holly van der Salm – don’t just be a specialist, don’t be afraid to take risks, and go where the exciting science is. A University of Otago PhD candidate, Ms van der Salm now has new books on her bedside table and a new perspective on her future career. She tells us about the HOPE meeting, an annual Japanese conference aimed at engaging early career Asia-Pacific researchers with distinguished scientists.

Who did you get to meet?

The Nobel Prize Dialogue was held outside of Sweden for the first time this year; as part of the HOPE meeting, we attended this interesting symposium and had a shared reception dinner. Many Nobel Prize winners and celebrated scientists were present, and the Emperor and Empress of Japan made an appearance. I was part of a group chosen to speak with the Empress and we spoke briefly about the meeting and my background. She was very sweet.

At the HOPE meeting, as well as each giving a lecture, the Nobel Laureates hosted small discussion groups where we could ask questions about science or just about life. They also came to mealtimes with us, which gave us extra opportunity to interact in a more casual environment, which I appreciated.

Was talking to Nobel Laureates the best thing about the trip?

At the HOPE meeting it was also good to meet all the other young researchers; one hundred people from a diverse research fields and from all over Africa and Asia-Pacific. We lived under the same roof for a week and got to know each other. These relationships might not directly help me right now, but it’s hard to predict what will happen in the future in terms of potential collaborations.

What research are you doing now?

Broadly speaking, I am a physical chemist. I have just handed in my PhD thesis which focussed on spectroscopy of donor-acceptor compounds. We use spectroscopic methods to investigate the electronic properties of various compounds. Experimental techniques are augmented by quantum chemical modelling, which is validated by comparison to experiment where possible, and allows us to fill in some gaps where we can’t experimentally probe. I find the application of spectroscopy interesting; in that a bunch of squiggly lines can tell us lots of things.

I now need to look for a postdoc position; before I went to the meeting I wasn’t sure if I cared whether I continued in science, but I was inspired by interacting with great scientists and enthusiastic young scientists. It seems that all areas of science are becoming more interdisciplinary, so who knows what I might end up doing, and where I may end up in the future.

What compounds have you investigated?

The general ‘theme’ of the compounds I have looked at is that they are all donor-acceptor compounds which undergo charge transfer. I have looked at a series of porphyrin-based sensitisers for dye-sensitised solar cells synthesised at the University of Wollongong, Australia, in order to try and understand what makes them good or bad at this.

I have looked at a series of compounds with amine-based donor groups, and how the electronic behaviour can be manipulated by changing the relationship between the donor and acceptor in various ways, such as distance or angle.

Has the meeting changed your view of your future career?

As Professor Dan Shechtman (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2011) said to us, most of life just happens to us, we really don’t decide that many things. I think this is true to some extent, in that you don’t know what opportunities will be available when you are looking, and this is how I view my future career really – probably it will mostly be beyond my control who is hiring a postdoc and what they are researching. Nonetheless, all of the speakers expressed the importance of following interesting science, and even if that means taking a bit of a risk on something other people don’t think will work, or giving up a stable job to pursue, it’s worth it. They also stressed the importance of having a broad knowledge base in many fields, but being an expert in something. This has prompted me to broaden my knowledge a bit, I have picked up a couple of books, both a little tongue-in-cheek really (‘What If?’ By Randall Munroe and ‘Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!’ By Richard Feynman), but I intend to read further in general science; such as a book suggested by a fellow HOPE participant about how to think in more than three dimensions, which no doubt will take a long time to complete.

The attendance of New Zealanders at the HOPE meeting is part of the New Zealand/Japan scientist exchange programmes

These interviews are supported by the Royal Society of New Zealand, which promotes, invests in and celebrates excellence in people and ideas, for the benefit of all New Zealanders.

0 Responses to “'Take scientific risks' – Nobel Laureates”

  • It is all very well for the successful to say, “Take some risks,” but most risks have more chances of not working than working. In my view, most successful people get there by minimising risk. Another point they probably have not mentioned is that when they suggest going to interesting science, they do not mean, start showing the established ones they may be wrong. There are few prizes for going against mainstream.

  • That sounds like an interesting field to be involved with.
    Is it true then that all matter is electric ?
    Electronic behaviour is the electric behaviour in matter ?
    How is the spectroscope adept at seeing flux differences ?
    The last question is, your field is it also physics ?
    Sorry for all the questions but the idea that electricity may in fact be the dominant force in the universe is something that makes me wonder. There is a theory that combines this with some good observation which I find to be more plausible science. “The Electric Universe”.