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On Passion

I’m at the World Conference of Science Journalists in London this week. There are 900 journalists from all over the world here — more than 70 countries, I heard. If you travel to science conferences, that’s probably not impressive. But journalists tend to travel in packs — by subject material (neuroscience, physics, geoscience, etc.) or by geography. It’s rare to have this many folks together for the purpose of considering our profession.

There’s not just journalists here, though. I had a conversation earlier today with a postdoc from the University of Dundee. Using Roberts money, the university provides funds to postdocs to travel to conferences outside their field to promote alternative careers. Cool, huh? She’s here to check out science writing. I hope she doesn’t go away thinking there’s always this much free beer. (Seriously, though, if you’re interested in science writing, check out our series of articles on the topic.)

One reason she’s looking into science writing: She’s not sure she’s passionate about her research, and that passion is a huge key to success.

I just attended the announcement of the Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research, given by Johnson and Johnson. This year’s winner: Axel Ullrich, Ph.D., director of the Department of Molecular Biology at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Germany. Translational research in his lab led to the development of the cancer drug Herceptin and genetically engineered human insulin. Here’s what he had to say when I asked him what he tells postdocs that go through his lab:

“Look for what you really want to do. If you’re not excited and passionate about solving a problem, then you will never succeed. If you design your career by rational parameters, … you will never succeed. You have to be passionate about what you do. … Don’t say, ‘there are so many competitors.’ Don’t worry about that. Go straight to the problem. This is what I did — I had this built-in compass, and [with it] I never had any hesitation starting even the most difficult project.”

Top advice, I’d say, whether you’re in science or not.