“I found my tribe among scientists”
Interview with Ardem Patapoutian, February 2022
On 28 February nobelprize.org spoke to medicine laureate Ardem Patapoutian about his journey to the United States, what it takes to become a successful scientist and his love of playing the trumpet (even though his two cats don’t love it as much).
First of all, I want to hear a bit about your childhood. What did you want to be when you were a kid? Did you always want to be a scientist?
Ardem Patapoutian: No, I didn’t know I wanted to be a scientist until much later in my life. I’m Armenian in origin. I grew up in Lebanon and I lived there the first 18 years of my life. There weren’t any scientists around, science as a career was not something I envisioned. My whole childhood I thought I was going to become a medical doctor. The reason, honestly, it was mainly because my parents wanted a doctor in the family. Funny enough, my brother and sister who were older than me didn’t want to do that because they were very queasy. They couldn’t stand looking at a cockroach for example. I was very brave in the sense that I used to kill cockroaches. So that’s what started me in the medical field, a very uninspiring story. But after immigrating to the United States and going to college to undergraduate at UCLA, I really fell in love with this, at that time decades-old, revolution in molecular biology. I took a molecular biology course, really got inspired, worked in a lab mainly to get a letter of recommendation for medical school, but I really fell in love with doing basic biology research. That’s when I kind of shifted and decided to go into the sciences and get my PhD.
You spoke about the fact that when you were 18, you moved to the US as an immigrant. That must have been a challenging journey. Can you tell me a bit about that experience?
Yes, it was a very eventful time in my life. I was 18 years old, left all my friends and my parents in Lebanon and I came to the United States. It was indeed very difficult. I thought I was proficient in English, but coming to Los Angeles, I realised I couldn’t understand anybody. That was a big challenge. The culture of course was so different. It was a very big adjustment, but I had to also stop going to college for a year and have odd jobs like delivering pizzas and working in an Armenian newspaper for a year mainly to gain residency so I could go back to college. I came in with $2,000 in my account. It was a very tough year, but I think that experience has really made me tougher and appreciate what I have now. I keep talking about how it’s a privilege to do science. I think those experiences of both growing up in war-torn Lebanon as well as the difficulty of leaving everything and coming has not just toughened me up, but I’ve appreciated everything I have more because I remember those days and that kind of gives me some inspiration to realise how privileged we are.
Could you tell me if there was like a particular person, a role model, parent or teacher that influenced you a lot when you decided on your field?
There’s a few people. As I said, one of the big inspirations was taking this basic molecular biology class. It was called molecular biology seven at UCLA and the teacher was Bob Goldberg. It’s funny to say someone has inspired you because while I was his student I never got to talk to him because the class was very large. It was 200-300 people taking the class and yet he had these amazing ways to make this large class seem like an intimate affair. He had discussions with people, he grouped people into small groups to talk to them, gave us books to read about molecular biology and it felt very intimate. That’s when I really fell in love with the material. I also have to mention, most of education for biology happens in a laboratory. When I was working in Judy Lengyel’s lab at UCLA and there were these two graduate students, Eirikur Steingrimsson and Richard Baldarelli, and they really took me under their wings and showed me how to think about science and how to appreciate it. I really loved it and owe those guys a lot early on to help with my journey.
What would you say is the best thing about being a scientist?
I think this has been said by many before, but when you do an experiment and you find this result that is unexpected, or you realise that you saw something about nature that no one had seen before. You’re the first one observing this, you’re the first one understanding a concept that no one else has. It’s hard to explain that feeling, but I feel like that’s one of the most special things scientists experience. My favourite words are someone from the laboratory coming in and saying, “You got to come to the microscope and take a look at this”, that gets your excitement going like no other sentence.
What qualities would you say are needed to become a successful scientist?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot and it’s a very unusual combination of traits, I would say. First of all, you have to be dedicated to your science and think and read a lot. I find that people who know the literature very well, who know what’s going on, what’s known in the past is very important to have ideas of what one should do in the future. Strong knowledge is very important. But it’s also important to know what kind of questions to ask. It’s an interesting overlap between being a dreamer where you’re thinking big, you’re imagining answering questions that no one else has, but you have to inject that with a little bit of practicality. What I mean by that is that anyone can dream, but if you dream something unimaginable or something that is not practical to do in the next few years, you might not be successful. People talk about the dreaming part a lot, which is necessary. It’s important, it’s wonderful, but a little bit of practical injection into that is also important. You have to look at where science and the field is and figure out what is really attainable in the next five years or not. That intersection of big thinking and practical approach I think is where success lies.
Would you say that you have any advice that you would give to young up-and-coming researchers today? What kind of advice do you usually give to your students?
I think in science many times we get discouraged by these practical setbacks that we all experience, a paper doesn’t get accepted, a grant you write does not get funded. Sometimes these difficulties take center stage and you kind of become very upset about them. What I try to remind myself and everyone else is to remember why you got into science to begin with. I used the word privilege before, it’s a privilege to do what we do. We come into the lab every day, ask questions about nature, how things work, and you design to address them. What a great luxury that is, what a privilege it is. I think if you focused on the pleasure we get from the discovery process, the joy we get from doing experiments, I think that takes care of all the other setbacks. Not to minimise the setbacks because they are very important and it’s very difficult to do science. We need lots of support from the government, from funding agencies, etc. But it’s very important also to keep in mind why you got into science to begin with – for the love of science – and keep reminding yourself of that and not taking it for granted is the best advice I can give.
How do you think that we can encourage more women or minorities to enter the field of science?
I think the good news is that all scientists that I know are talking about this, I think we realise that there is a problem of not being inclusive for people from underrepresented backgrounds and everyone’s working at this and it’s important to work at it from two perspectives. One is to educate the young and get them interested in science from communities, whether it’s male or female or it’s immigrants, like I was, or people who are not represented in science early on to get them involved, which is very important. But we also want to make sure that the people we already have in science are taken care of and are not discriminated against. I actually hadn’t thought about this too much but I remember that when I first came here, I am kind of a bit ashamed to admit this, but I was trying to hide the fact that I came from Lebanon. I thought my name was very long, difficult to pronounce and people associated Lebanon with war and in my CV where I went one year to American University of Beirut and then graduated from UCLA, early on in my days I didn’t put AUB in there. I just had the bachelor’s degree of science from UCLA, I did not really want to deal with potential negative perceptions of being from the middle east. Honestly after the Nobel Prize, the great positive feedback I’ve received for not just winning the Nobel Prize, but being an immigrant who’s won a Nobel Prize, made me realise that I was thinking about this completely wrong. I’m trying to correct that now by highlighting it more than I normally would. It’s back on my CV. I’m very proud to have this background and if I can help a young kid who sees this and says, “Well, maybe I can do that as well”, then that would be my pleasure.
Would you say that you see yourself as American or Armenian or would you say that you are an international citizen?
I’ve often said that I found my tribe among scientists. It’s a particular tribe and I am really proud because I witnessed this from every lab I’ve been in. It’s such an international community that work and collaborate together. I definitely identify with that the most, but I have a very interesting mix, of course I’m an American but I grew up mainly speaking Armenian in an Armenian family but was born in Lebanon. I have a very mixed past and I am reconnecting to some of this past as well as realising that most and foremost we’re humans. Human rights and human equality should be at the forefront. Not to diminish the importance of cultural contributions of different countries, which is also very nice and important to celebrate. It’s a very interesting mix.
How do you like to spend your spare time? I’ve seen pictures of you with the trumpet, are you a musician in your spare time?
I’m a big believer of work and life balance. I feel like one of the great things about science is a lot of it is about thinking, you’re thinking about questions. You can do this any time, any place. I’m not in the lab all the time. I do lots of things outside, but honestly, most times I’m thinking about the science and I don’t think of this as a burden. I think of it as a great thing, because I really enjoy it. Having said that, I love physical activities. I’ve also said before that many of my great science ideas have come to me while I’m running or doing any kind of exercise outdoors because it kind of frees the brain to think in a new way. I love that feeling. I love to hike. I used to love to run. I have a knee injury now, so mostly walking and hiking. We, a bunch of faculty here at Scripps, go swimming in the ocean. I love lots of outdoors things.
I also love music. I like to go to concerts and I play a little bit of trumpet and it’s interesting. I’m really, really bad at it. I’ve played for many years and I have not mastered this instrument. It’s not an easy instrument. But I enjoy being bad at trumpet. Let’s put it that way, but I cannot say the same thing about my wife, son and our two cats who immediately leave the room when I start playing.
On another note: we love your Twitter activity! How do you see Twitter and social media and the responsibilities that we have on social media?
Science Twitter is a very interesting subcategory of Twitter. I like it a lot because it’s a very interesting mix of science, science gossip, and fun as well as science-related issues such as representation and all these things we talked about. It’s not utterly professional. There’s lots of fun in it, but actually it has come to a point where I hear about new scientific studies from PubMed, but also from Twitter, it’s become one of the sources of getting science stories. Beyond that, it’s a platform where you can reach many people. In my case, I went from, for example, having 3000 followers before the Nobel Prize to now approaching 30,000. It’s a pretty big jump. I guess I’m a nano influencer now because science is still a smaller market than the general public. I overall like it. I think there’s lots of positivity there. If someone is having a tough time in science, they talk about it. They seem to get amazing positive support. It’s also important to highlight that science has to be and can be fun, we do things outside of science that we enjoy and it’s just total representation of what a scientist is and does these days. It’s not to be taken too seriously. It’s just meant to be my state of mind, whether it’s talking about science or any of the other things I’m interested in.
Besides having more Twitter followers, has your life changed in any other ways since you became a laureate. Have you noticed anything that has changed since that happened?
There’s a lot more attention paid, on Twitter I have to be more careful. But I think I’m trying to make the best out of it. One of the things that my wife Nancy and I have talked about is that we really liked our lives before the Nobel Prize. Part of me doesn’t want to change that too much because I want to still come to lab every day, interact with the young scientists in my lab and mostly do science. At the same time, this attention makes you realise, I don’t want to say responsibility, but the opportunity to do more than that. Again, I don’t tweet to do this for example, but when I do, and I see people be inspired that they can do this as well that gives me amazing satisfaction to try to do that.
I’m dealing with lots of more invitations to visit amazing places in the world, which is a good thing. I am also trying to keep my old rule of only 12 visits a year to places so that I can still focus on science. Honestly, it’s a work in progress. I’m still trying to think of how I want to use this new opportunity. I think immigration and science is an important aspect to me. My Armenian origin is important to me, and this will be some of the aspects that I will talk more about and get involved in and try to get science blossoming in countries that haven’t had the opportunity is one of the long-term goals.
I can’t leave you without asking a question about this touching moment that you shared on Twitter, the picture depicting you and your son when you got the announcement call. Can you tell us a bit about that moment?
Yeah, it was a touching moment, as you say. I had my phone on do not disturb so I didn’t receive the three or four phone calls from Stockholm at two in the morning. They reached my 94-year-old father who then was able to call me and tell me that I should pay attention to this. As soon as this happened, we had literally one minute before the public announcement. My wife Nancy woke up my son Luca who came in and we wouldn’t even have thought about it but someone from the Nobel Foundation said we would love to have an image as soon as possible of a reaction. This was a genuine moment where I had just opened the laptop to see the live announcement and Luca was sitting next to me. When he saw my name, that’s exactly when the photo was snapped by Nancy, my wife. He was kind of excited and touching my shoulder. It was an in-the-moment shot that turned out great. As I said in my Nobel lecture, traditionally when you win the Nobel all these cameras come to your home and because of COVID, we didn’t have any of that. This picture kind of became the main way I shared this with the rest of the world. I am very fond of that moment. I’m glad it’s captured.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
First published: February 2022
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