“I think the essence of science—what really makes it so much fun—is to do what others aren’t doing…rather than doing what everyone else in the pack is flocking to…I think it’s a problem when the word ‘useful’ is treated as a synonym for something that can be commercialized in the next few years.”

–Yoshinori Ohsumi

Japanese biologist and winner
of 2016 Nobel Prize in
physiology or medicine
for elucidations on cellular waste recycling (autophagy)
and the body’s ability to recycle proteins


Screenshot: Early in the morning somebody will get a call from a man named Staffan Normack with a Swedish accent and their life will forever change. Nobel Prizes will be announced this week beginning in the morning. My prediction for the prize in Physiology or Medicine is that awardees will be Adrian Bird, Howard Cedar and Aharon Razin for their DNA-methylation discoveries in epigenetics. This is the most important biochemical research in my judgment since the DNA structure work and implied preview of a DNA replication mechanism in the Watson and Crick award in 1962. For the record that work was greatly based on crystallographic photography studies by the famously unmentioned biophysicist Rosalind Franklin.

Update: I was wrong. Thankfully, I didn’t bet anything. I still expect epigenetics to command the Prize eventually.

Comments by a classmate are newsworthy for a rare call on talent sourcing and higher education. They’re taken from the New York Times interview In Head-Hunting, Big Data May Not Be Such a Big Deal. Workforce insights by an analytics firm like Google can uniquely inform: Many firms lack analytical ROI comparable to Google’s, and academia, for example, is too removed from private workforces for some granular assessments.

The general topic got attention in the Harvard Business Review blog post, Should Higher Education Be Free?. If one no longer needs a transcript, GPA or test score to work at Google, maybe the conventional schooling dispensing them isn’t precisely needed either. For Google is no subversive to academia or a Peter Thiel. It’s among ideal customers to academia in the private sector. Elsewhere, countries with higher academically trained populations like Canada or Japan show lower GDP per capita and do relatively less innovation than the less educated U.S.

Previously, firms have quantified workforce terminal degrees, for example, to signal firm value. In contrast, Google is here quantifying a lack thereof as competitive. This insight should concern stakeholders in conventional academia as well as those sourcing premium talent.

Q. Other insights from the data you’ve gathered about Google employees?

A. One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless — no correlation at all except for brand-new college grads, where there’s a slight correlation. Google famously used to ask everyone for a transcript and G.P.A.’s and test scores, but we don’t anymore, unless you’re just a few years out of school. We found that they don’t predict anything.

What’s interesting is the proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time as well. So we have teams where you have 14 percent of the team made up of people who’ve never gone to college. –Laszlo Bock

Q. Can you elaborate a bit more on the lack of correlation?

A. After two or three years, your ability to perform at Google is completely unrelated to how you performed when you were in school, because the skills you required in college are very different. You’re also fundamentally a different person. You learn and grow, you think about things differently.

Another reason is that I think academic environments are artificial environments. People who succeed there are sort of finely trained, they’re conditioned to succeed in that environment. One of my own frustrations when I was in college and grad school is that you knew the professor was looking for a specific answer. You could figure that out, but it’s much more interesting to solve problems where there isn’t an obvious answer. You want people who like figuring out stuff where there is no obvious answer. –Laszlo Bock

This is a follow up report by Nature on a Japanese researcher who incidentally created mammalian gametes—both egg and sperm cells—that led to live births. A formidable scientific feat, it prompts recall of an earlier and topical twitter exchange. Echoed here is the epic wrestle with the role and implications of science.

Great story. High school freshman, Jack Andraka, develops a paper sensor for detection of blood proteins signaling some early stage cancers. Certain proteins get over-expressed in the blood for different cancers at early stages.  Tests categorized as ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) are part protocol for early cancer diagnostics. Jack’s discovery—now with the patent lawyers and Johns Hopkins—seems factors more efficient and accurate than ELISAs, the first of which was invented over 40 years ago.  For perspective, here’s how ELISA was celebrated only in 2006.

I note:

  • Jack attends public school.
  • Like the rest of us he was also “home-schooled”, i.e, he learned stuff at home.
  • Jack did research outside the advantages, constraints, accoutrements and professional politics of a conventional research grant-based environment.
  • Jack had supportive parents and teachers.
  • He had fun.
  • Jack seems personable, well-mannered and easily conversant with a balance of complexity and simplicity, and people seem to want to work with him. (TRANSLATION: Jack’s emotional IQ doesn’t appear inversely proportional to his conventional IQ.)
  • Jack focused on a little part of a really big something.
  • Jack is 15.

Much cancer work is on treatment. In conventional medicine—whose professional impulses in the grimmest cast mimic complacency if not a more honorable abject surrender—cancer is a given.  Oncology’s whole start. And in truth there are problems about which we know little to do and cancer’s surely among them. Viruses too. They stump us for similar reasons and it’s no coincidence we’ve cured neither.

But this  freshman is focusing on proteomics and detection— upstream. Because everything is a rate. And he’s  valuing the simple proposition of earlier diagnostics—plus better ones—as, yes, a prelude to earlier treatment.

Thinking about big problems can be daunting—cancer is big.  But the ability to focus on a small piece is key.  But research tradition—even in the fine exploratory arena of a progressive Johns Hopkins lab—can sometimes obscure how legitimate little pieces look.  Some fruit, I fear, hangeth too low for view by the fanciest eyes.  Or a more accurate explanation may lie in this random literature from an LSAC publication:

“Many major scientific discoveries of the past were the product of serendipity, the chance discovery of valuable findings that investigators had not purposely sought.  Now, however, scientific research tends to be so costly that investigators are heavily dependent on large grants to fund their research.  Because such grants require investigators to provide the grant sponsors with clear projections of the outcome of the proposed research, investigators ignore anything that does not directly bear on the funded research.”

A Yale management professor said it takes 10 years of doing something to become an expert—there are studies. Yes. It takes volume. Volume takes time. But that’s not the story, increasingly. First, whole industries now rise and die in 10 years. You won’t get that window to “master” in.  Secondly, you’re due to know something after 10 years, but the question is whether it’s optimum. Lastly, even if you get to master something, your frequency of innovation over the course—e.g., Jack-style—is something else. And that’s business’ whole deal.

Quite opposite dismissing children because of youth or no volume, I particularly attend. I follow them on twitter. In science great questions and discovery, as Jack teaches, not only can come early before you’re a conventional expert and often seem to come in part because you’re not, but increasingly in a competitive world, they must.

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