Shinya Yamanaka addresses the University of Oslo

Photo: Terje Heiestad

With failure comes opportunity

Every laureate faces failures and set-backs on their path to the Nobel Prize. It is a topic they are frequently asked about at Nobel Prize Inspiration Initiative events, and, given that we all fail from time to time, their insights are relevant for us all, whether failure is something already experienced, or whether it is yet to come!

What can failures teach us?

At the start of his career, Shinya Yamanaka would get very disappointed when his experiments failed. However, now he has learnt to see all failure as an opportunity.


How should scientists deal with disappointment in the lab?

Harold Varmus stresses the importance of working in a supportive group, and recommends having multiple experimental lines going at once. This way it is possible to balance out the risk of failure that stems from ambitious projects with the greater likelihood of results from more secure projects.


Did you ever feel daunted by a career in science?

Elizabeth Blackburn felt intimidated by the idea of applying for jobs and building a career in science, but didn’t have a concept of what else she would do.


What should I do when my experiments don’t work?

According to Peter Doherty going through periods where experiments aren’t working is part of the experience of being a scientist. There are many reasons for experiments to go wrong, and these may be outside your control.


How do you deal with failure?

Early in his career, Brian Kobilka learnt to design experiments in a way that could reveal why they failed. He had a lot of failures, but this helped him understand what to try next.


Have there been any failures in HIV research?

We don’t yet have an HIV vaccine or cure, but Françoise Barré-Sinoussi doesn’t see this as a failure because we have learnt from our attempts. Negative results raise new questions.


These videos were filmed at Nobel Prize Inspiration Initiative events delivered in partnership with AstraZeneca.


First published in October 2020

To cite this section
MLA style: With failure comes opportunity. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2023. Fri. 29 Sep 2023. <>

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