Protégés and mentors: Science research has 'a lot of work to do'

Yao Minji
Aaron Ciechanover, 2004 Nobel chemistry laureate, talked about education, the future of chemistry and how longer lives pose more questions for scientists.
Yao Minji

Many established scientists value education for the next generation and devote time to teaching young students. Aaron Ciechanover, 2004 Nobel chemistry laureate, knows the value of good mentorship because he himself benefited greatly from such guidance.

Ciechanover, 72, has given lectures to young scientists and students around the world, including in North Korea. He has taught Chinese students via digital lectures and regularly holds sessions in high schools back in his native Israel.

Ciechanover, who originally wanted to be a doctor, fell in love with biochemistry during his medical studies, thanks to a good mentor and the magic of chemistry itself. He said he was particularly excited about “looking for chemical processes in cells.” 

He was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work characterizing the method that cells use to degrade and recycle proteins.

The professor was recently in Shanghai to meet Chinese scientists and students. In an interview with Shanghai Daily, he talked about education, the future of chemistry and how longer lives pose more questions for scientists.

Q: You are known to be very engaged in teaching science to young students. You have held remote classrooms with Chinese students in the past. What sustains you in that endeavor?

A: I had interactions with some Chinese high-school students earlier. It was very interesting. We talked about how to choose a career, what’s next in science, how to do illustration in science, and so forth.

In Israel, I do it regularly. I give lectures in high schools at least once a week.

I really enjoy a lot working with young people. I think I understand what bothers them, which is not very different from what bothered me. I wasn’t born into a Nobel Prize.

Every generation has its problems in developing careers, learning how to compete, and how to choose what you are really good at. That’s the same for this generation.

It’s very important for us, for established scientists, to mentor and guide the young generation and to give them advice. But in the end, they need to make their own decisions.

Q: Are there big differences between Chinese and Israeli students, or are they quite similar?

A: Israeli students are less obedient and they challenge authorities. They can do whatever they want, and sometimes it’s very chaotic.

Chinese students are very nice, obedient and don’t challenge authorities as much. It would be the best if we could have a mix of the two.

Q: In chemistry, what is our next big challenge?

A: If you think about it, everything is chemistry-related. When you breathe oxygen, when you digest your lunch, it’s all chemistry.

Once chemistry has life, it’s biology. When it’s used in treatment, it’s medicine.

It’s all a continuation.

One of the next challenges is, of course, the brain. We don’t understand the brain. We don’t understand diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Q: So what should we do?

A: For every question we are answering, there are 10 more emerging. Knowledge is infinite. Once we solve the issues of the brain, there will again be something else to explore.

Q: So we might find new diseases, too?

A: Yes. We are living longer, but we are living longer with a big price. The price is old age and all the modern diseases that come with it.

In the early 1900s, we lived about 50 years and died of infections because there were no antibiotics. A lot of today’s medicine didn’t exist at the time.

People didn’t live as long, so they didn’t develop cancer, Alzheimer’s or heart attacks.

If you go to hospitals around the world today, you will find that the three most common diseases are cancer, brain and heart — diseases of old age.

That’s because the biological system can’t sustain itself for too long. There is a limit to our age. Our system breaks down.

Q: How far are we along in treating these three diseases?

A: Cancer, we know a little about that. The brain, we know nothing. The heart, we are more advanced in our knowledge. We have advanced in all the three fields, but we still have a long way to go, and when we arrive, we don’t know what next will face us.

Q: We know nothing about the brain?

A: We don’t know how our brains work exactly. Do you know how your brain works?

We know more than before, but we need to know more, especially about diseases. We don’t understand psychiatric diseases. We don’t understand feelings — what is love? We have explanations but we don’t know the mechanisms. We don’t understand talent. Why are you more talented than I am? Why are you a journalist and I’m a scientist? 

There is a lot of work to do.

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