How to Innovate: Lessons in Life from a Nobel Laureate

By Shlomo   Maital      


   I had the privilege of interviewing Technion Nobel Laureate in Chemistry (2004) Prof. Avram Hershko, for our book Technion Nation.  After a year of fame and travel, in the wake of his Nobel, Prof. Hershko was back at his lab bench, nose to the grindstone, doing what he loved – solving the innermost mysteries of Nature inside the human cell.  When I interviewed him, he told me he had bowed out of a prestigious ceremony – in order to attend his grand-daughter’s ballet performance.  I thought then that this captured this modest and brilliant man, who knew what truly counts.

    Recently, Hershko’s breakthrough (done with his student Aaron Ciechanover, who shared his Nobel) in discovering how and why cells die (based on a protein called ubiquitin) has returned to the headlines, because a crucial gene p53 related to ubiquitin has been shown to be related to the spread of cancer (see my previous blog).   

    Hershko has shared some of his life lessons in the first issue of Rambam Hospital’s medical journal (2010).*   They are worthy of study by everyone keen on innovating.

    Hershko explains that in one of his first experiments after finishing his Ph.D., he observed that the degradation (destruction) of a protein inside the human cell required energy.  Why? asked Hershko.  After all, protein degradation outside of cells (e.g. digesting food) does not need energy.  Why?  There must be a new kind of energy-dependent mechanism that degrades proteins in cells, he concluded. But what is it?  “All my subsequent work was influenced by this one experiment,” Hershko observes.  This work led to the discovery of ubiquitin, which is attached to proteins and labels them for destruction, which won Hershko the Nobel. “It might have been mere luck that I chose to do this experiment early in my career,” he observes, “but luck by itself would not have steered me toward further achievements. I had to embark on serious scientific work to pursue this unique finding.”  This echoes Pasteur’s famous statement:  “chance favors the prepared mind”..and the mind willing to work hard to follow up on a lucky discovery.  Hershko chose to study how and why cells die, when others wanted to learn only how cells live and divide.  It was a fortunate choice, and may lead to a cure for cancer.

  Here are a few of Hershko’s Life Lessons: 

1. It is very important to have good mentors, you cannot learn how to do good science just from reading the literature.

2. Find an important subject that is not yet interesting to others, otherwise the big guys will get there before you!  Do not go with the mainstream.

3. Accidental observations may be the most important ones. Grab your luck!

4. Use whatever experimental approach is needed for your objective; it may not necessarily be the most fashionable (“state-of-the-art”) technology.

5. Have a lot of excitement and fun in science – this is how discoveries are made!

6. Never leave bench-work, and you shall continue to get a lot of excitement and fun.

  In short,  find good mentors,  pick big challenges others are not tackling, leverage luck, have fun, and keep at it. 


* Prof. Avram Hershko, “Science as an Adventure – Lessons for the Young Scientist”,  Rambam Medical Journal, 1(1), June 2010.