Uri Alon, a biophysicist at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, likes to tell a story about when he first became a faculty member. Already an accomplished researcher, he stepped into his empty new lab and immediately felt overwhelmed. Despite all the training he’d received about how to do science, there was so much more to being a scientist that he was completely unprepared for: setting up a laboratory, recruiting students and postdocs, developing good projects for students and postdocs, managing a large team, mentoring young people for the next stages of their careers, and so on. As critical as these skills are to being successful, there is very little emphasis on developing these skills early in one’s career.
Indeed, there seems to be little respect in the scientific community for the importance of these “soft skills,” at least in comparison to the technical skills required to do the research itself. As a result of his personal experiences, Uri Alon has led a small crusade toward greater emphasis of the human aspect of doing science. On his website he’s compiled a growing set of resources called “Materials for Nurturing Scientists,” including articles, videos, and songs, authored by both himself and others. Topics include how to choose a scientific problem, how to give a good talk, how to build a motivated research group, how to achieve work-life balance, and more. He also has developed support groups for young scientists at his institution and has advised other institutions how to do the same. His title evokes a compelling vision: one in which one’s goal as an advisor to students and postdocs goes far beyond merely supervising their research. The “nurturing paradigm” entails holistically developing young people in every aspect of becoming a professional scientist. Having heard Uri Alon speak (and sing songs) about these issues multiple times in person, his vision is certainly an inspiration to me.