Overcoming Self-Doubt

Martin Chalfie was born in Chicago in 1947. He studied biochemistry because it combined his interests in math, chemistry, and biology. A summer lab experience left him very discouraged and he began to doubt himself. The one area where Martin was confident was swimming, and he was named captain of the swim team his senior year.

After graduation, Martin doubted his abilities and worked in a number of low-end jobs. When he discovered that a paper he had written was accepted for publication, his confidence was renewed. His hopes for a career in biochemistry were restored.

He completed a PhD at Harvard and after a post-doc joined the faculty at Columbia University. His research interests were in the nervous system of worms. To study the nervous systems, the worms had to be killed. That was standard practice at the time, but that changed when Martin attended a seminar hosted by his department.

The seminar speaker described how jellyfish could produce visible light. A protein in the jellyfish produced a green light. Martin had a breakthrough insight. He tried inserting the protein into his worms as he could study their nervous systems without killing them.

The work that Martin did on the protein has now led to breakthroughs in agriculture, pollution studies, virus studies, and cancer research. What started as research on worms became a breakthrough in many other fields as well. Martin’s hopes became a catalyst for others’ hopes as well.

When the Nobel Committee called to announce he won the Nobel Prize, he didn’t hear the call. He was sleeping. Later that morning he checked out who won the prize, thinking he didn’t win it because he never got the call. Again, his confidence was lacking. He was astonished when he found out he had won.

Hopes are often influenced by self-confidence. Think of how Martin was devastated by a bad lab experience and may have never made the discovery that was awarded the Nobel Prize. Where was his support system? How many Martin’s have there been, who could have achieved major breakthroughs but lacked self-confidence and had no support system?

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“If you do an experiment and it gives you what you did not expect, it is a discovery.” – Martin Chalfie

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