Socrates taught Plato, who taught Aristotle. The essential role of mentorship in a pupil’s success is as apparent to scientists today as it was to the philosophers of ancient Greece. The Nobel science prizes, which were awarded this week, illustrate this point. Within the elite club of laureates, more than one in five had a PhD supervisor who also won the prize; one in six trained as a researcher under a Nobelist. What makes students of Nobel laureates so successful? On the one hand, first-rate mentors attract talented, ambitious mentees. But the transfer of knowledge from master to apprentice is also crucial, according to a new paper by Yifang Ma, Satyam Mukherjee and Brian Uzzi of Northwestern University.
To demonstrate this, Dr Ma and his colleagues identified two groups of similarly talented students with equally accomplished advisers (measured by university prestige, citation impact and productivity). Some of these mentors would go on to win a Nobel Prize; the rest would not. Exactly which group each would fall into would not be clear until years later. Based on this quasi-experiment, the authors found that the protégés of future Nobel laureates were more than three times as likely to win the prize as their similarly talented counterparts. They were twice as likely to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences and also produced more highly cited research than their peers.
One might assume that the success of these privileged protégés can be chalked up to their mentors’ innate brilliance. But the truth is more mundane. The authors emphasise the importance of pursuing the most promising ideas, spotting hidden gems in messy results and collaborating with other scientists. Sir Richard Roberts, an English biologist and Nobel winner (medicine, 1993), having observed the disproportionate number of father-son and husband-wife laureates, once joked that to win a Nobel prize you need to pick your family carefully. No one can choose to be born with Nobel-winning ancestry, but scholars can pick their academic families—as Sir Richard did. He studied under both Frederick Sanger (chemistry, 1958 and 1980) and James Watson (medicine, 1962).
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