“… to succeed in science … you have to possess the will to tackle something that is bigger than you”

Tony Wyss-Coray’s research could revolutionize the way we think about aging and the way we treat age-related diseases. His most recent studies have shown that circulatory factors can modulate neurogenesis, neuroimmunity and cognitive function in mice and that blood-derived factors from young mice or humans can rejuvenate the aging mouse brain.

We spoke with Wyss-Coray, NOMIS Distinguished Scientist Awardee and professor of neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford University, at his office in California, about the enabling factors in his environment and the people who supported him throughout his career, and about initiatives to change “the academic enterprise” to allow scientists to look past the continuous competition and instead focus on the ultimate motivation in research: unbounded curiosity.


NOMIS: Your research carries the promise of curing age-related diseases. Was your devotion to science borne from a desire to heal or cure, or was it something else?

TWC: My major motivation has always been curiosity. I always had a drive to figure things out. And even though I did not have the typical education to set me up as a researcher, I was trained early on that there is nothing that can’t be figured out. My family discussed a lot and my father was an autodidact who reconstructed everything he came across. In this environment, I developed an interest in dissecting things and putting them back together at a very young age.

But to succeed in science, it requires more than curiosity; you have to possess the will to tackle something that is bigger than you and have the ability to deal with frustration. You might be working on something for a year or more and find out in the end that your hypothesis was simply wrong. And it can’t depress you — you have to have the ability to say, “Ok, that didn’t work out; I’ll try something new.”

Actually [laughs], I experienced this kind of frustration for the first time when building my own amplifiers and stereos: You build these sound systems and it is only in the end when you connect them to power that you might learn you did it wrong; and then it might take days to find and resolve the problem. But that never bothered me. Wanting to find the solution was what challenged me to persevere.

NOMIS: Speaking of frustration, what was your biggest failure in research?

TWC: It is interesting that you ask because I tend to “forget” the bad experiences and instead focus on the successes. Some people are shaped by their negative experiences, but that was never me. I only remember what did work. It is kind of cheating [laughs].

NOMIS: How did your university years in Switzerland influence your career?

TWC: My supervisor at the Clinical Institute in Bern, Professor Werner Pichler, was actually a lot of fun. He made an impression on me with his enthusiasm for science and medicine. He inspired me to pursue research.

NOMIS: You spent your postdoctoral years at the Scripps Institute in San Diego and stayed on in California, working with several research institutes before being appointed professor at Stanford. How did you experience these different working environments?

TWC: My supervisor at the Scripps Institute, Professor Lennart Mucke, very much supported the idea that anything could be done when it comes to science. Doing research was purely exciting. But I also got a lot of critical feedback, which is important — without that, you don’t learn. He taught me to formulate my research, write grants and things like this, which were very important for my career.

When I came to Stanford, I experienced complete scientific independence; here I can do whatever I set my mind on. Furthermore, I suddenly had a pool of extremely talented people around me who were doing just the same — playing with ideas — and who were very collaborative. Everybody is highly motivated and scientifically excellent. The environment is at the same time extremely supportive and challenging — it is very stimulating.

NOMIS: What are the challenges in managing your lab here at Stanford?

TWC: Helping the whole team develop and supporting everybody, so they can do their best, is often challenging. It is easy to fall into a pattern of focusing on the leading scientists. I recently talked to somebody here at the university who has a start-up; he goes for lunch with his team once a week and makes a point of interacting with staff members with whom he would not necessarily interact otherwise. In a lab, too, you have the “star” who just published in Nature and you have the technician; and you can’t just spend your time with the star.

Another challenge I’ve experienced is that often our researchers come from a smaller environment where they always were the smartest and when they arrive here, everybody is so good, so the new researcher feels inadequate. As the leader of the group you have to help people reach their own potential; I certainly try this with every student I take on. Not everybody is cut out for becoming a professor at Harvard but there are other opportunities; I try to get them to a position where they feel happy.

NOMIS: With its focus on the researcher, NOMIS is suggesting a new approach to science funding — in your view, what are the challenges of the research funding system, particularly within your research field?

TWC: The system itself creates a challenge, pushing researchers to be achievers, to succeed, to compete, making it difficult for them to keep and follow their innate curiosity. And that is a bit unfortunate because it becomes to some extent a continuous hunt for trophies, fellowships, papers. For some people these achievements become more important than the discovery. The topic of misleading bibliometric indicators has been around for ages, particularly in my field. We are pondering and have begun implementing initiatives to counter this tendency — for example, by supporting collective publications without naming first and last author — but of course this is extremely difficult as long as the system continues to reward scientific achievements the way it does.

I am increasingly thinking about the bigger question of training and how we “build” people and careers. How could we encourage teamwork in which everybody feels like he or she would get what they deserve without getting credit through authorship? Having significant funding from NOMIS definitely helps, not only to develop new ideas in that direction, but to actually try them out.

This interview was conducted by Cosima Crawford on January 13, 2017.