Passion and Perseverance: What a Trainee Learned from Nobel Prize-Winner Michael Houghton

By Stepheny Zani

YouAlberta
Dec 7, 2020 · 4 min read
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The Nobel Prize medal and diploma were presented to medicine laureate Michael Houghton outside his home in Danville. © Nobel Prize Outreach. Photo: Anna Sjöström Douagi

As a physiology graduate student, I am fascinated by the numerous possibilities and discoveries ahead of me each day and by the chance to somehow contribute to society. So when I had the opportunity to attend a virtual FoMD event with Nobel Prize winner Michael Houghton, I was eager to hear what he had to say. I expected to hear an interesting conversation, but I was pleasantly surprised when it turned into an inspirational speech for us aspiring scientists of tomorrow.

Michael Houghton won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, alongside Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice, for the discovery of the hepatitis C virus (HCV). During this event, he talked about important aspects of his career, the challenges he faced to identify HCV, and how honoured he is to receive this accolade. During the event I could not stop thinking about his journey, which was not without struggles, and how it aligns with my own academic journey. How many times during the course of my studies I have asked myself: is time to give up? Is science not for me?

It was during my undergraduate research experience in Brazil — one project involving Omega-3 and oxidative stress, and another involving plant-derived extracts as anti-inflammatory molecules for snake venom — that I discovered my interest in science. After a few years working as a medical laboratory scientist, I decided to return to academia. I knew I wanted to work with metabolic diseases, specifically with Type 2 diabetes and obesity. I started my master’s degree in 2017 and, despite my desire to study science, I felt so insecure with the language and with my research abilities that I wondered if I had what it takes to succeed in this career. But following my gut (and my heart), after graduation I started a PhD program. My path here was not smooth and still requires persistence and determination, and so I want to share some words from Houghton that inspired me as a trainee and that will hopefully inspire you, too.

Amid the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, science in general has gained much (deserved) attention. Houghton talked about how this pandemic is showing us how powerful science is and how fast we can make progress if we work together, share our knowledge, and fight for the same cause. In his statements, he recognized the team members who helped him to identify HCV (Drs. Qui-Lim Choo and George Kuo), and the suppliers of samples that allowed him to perform his work. Houghton also commented on the many collaborations he has had during his career, including doctors and professors who have moved in and out of his field of study. The contribution of his trainees was not forgotten. To me, this emphasizes that science is teamwork and, as he mentioned, interdisciplinary collaborations are fundamental for scientific advancement.

Houghton told the audience: “my ambition has always been to make a contribution, doesn’t matter how small, to preventing disease.” As I listened to his words it gave me chills because, even during current uncertain times, his sentiment reassured my own feelings about my own goal — to advance knowledge in metabolic disease through scientific research and advocate for science and its importance.

The same thing that makes me excited about science also haunts me: we trainees know about the numerous failures and challenges that science brings with it. Houghton’s path was not perfect and he faced many challenges during his work to identify HCV, including years under pressure imposed by the industry to deliver results. Despite knowing it was going to be hard, he had a feeling that his investigations would allow him to isolate the virus and he persisted. As Houghton mentioned, persistence is a trait of human beings and, despite difficult times, persistence pays off if we are realistic about our goals. His persistence turned out to lead him to one of the greatest achievements in the medical field.

In a time when science has been questioned by some, Houghton believes that as scientists we have to respect society’s fear about science. We should present our case persuasively, reassuring non-scientists in a positive way about the scientific data and the rigour behind approved health measures. I believe in science and I believe that what I do is important, even if my research does not have an immediate effect.

Houghton’s Nobel Prize means he is being recognized around the world for his immense contribution to the field of physiology and medicine. He attributes his success to teamwork, to following his passion for solving disease, and persistence. To me, the main lesson I took away from his talk is: follow your passion and persevere, you are on the right path!

Watch a recording of U of A’s event An Evening with Nobel Laureate Michael Houghton.

About Stepheny

Stepheny is a mother of two, a wife, and an aspiring scientist of tomorrow. She arrived in Canada in 2017 from Sao Paulo, Brazil with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences with a specialization in clinical pathology. After completing a MSc in 2019, she is now a second-year PhD student in physiology. Stepheny’s thesis focuses on egg-derived bioactive peptides and their effects on Type 2 diabetes and obesity. When she’s not working, she is with her husband and children, and is currently trying to embrace the winter in Canada. She loves watching TV and reading books. As a mother, Stepheny is always trying to balance the forever guilt of not being present enough at home and the pleasure of following my professional goals.

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