Work hard now, to be able to work harder in your later life! This was the advice of the Nobel Prize winner Harald zur Hausen (1936) to medical students yesterday at the Maastricht School of Management. The German virologist gave insight into the do’s and don’ts of a successful academic career, building a network and landing grants. Zur Hausen should know, having won the Nobel Prize (“a great surprise and a great pleasure”) in 2008 for discovering the relationship between the human papillomavirus and cervical cancer. It’s probably the most precious but not the only award Zur Hausen has received in his long career. Among many other awards, he has seven honorary degrees to his name from universities all over the world. Now the professor emeritus occupies the Tefaf Oncology Chair at the GROW research institute.
In 1976, Zur Hausen hypothesised that some types of the papillomavirus play an important role in causing cervical cancer. This led to the development of a vaccine, introduced in 2006, which would cause a great deal of commotion in the Netherlands a few years later: certain religious and alternative organisations were not convinced of the benefits.
But this is not discussed in the meeting, mainly attended by about forty PhD students and some employees. Zur Hausen is worried, he says, about young researchers. “Nowadays they feel an enormous pressure to publish their articles. As a result many of them stick to the same themes and questions of their mentors. It’s a dangerous trend, this kind of scientific inbreeding. PhD students should get the chance to develop their own ideas, their own paths. I got it, although as a young researcher I only published two insignificant papers in obscure journals.”
Later, Zur Hausen would publish in all the top journals, such as Nature and Science, but was, at one time, rejected by these journals as well. “Instead of quarreling with editors – some may not like your approach or protocol – it’s better to look for a lower ranked journal and be published.” Does networking help? “I hated it. It felt like a tremendous loss of time, which I could better spend on my research. It’s only fruitful between researchers or groups with common interests. Being forced to do it is stupid.”
What should scientists never do with respect to their careers?, interviewer Han van der Meer asks. “Cheat, never cheat. Three times I discovered coworkers committing fraud. I immediately got rid of them. These things are not as rare as many people may think. As the editor in chief of the International Journal of Cancer I identified fifteen cases of fraud over the years. In all these cases I wrote a letter to the head of the institute where the author worked. Only once, the only European incident, did I receive a response. It was a Spanish rector who promised to sort it out.”
A student asks: “Did you have to make sacrifices while working hard?”
Zur Hausen: “Yes, I did. I was frequently absent from home, worked till late … You may know that I’m divorced.”
Student: "Do you regret it?"
Zur Hausen: “Let me answer it this way: I’m a fanatical researcher.”