SINGAPORE: Fifteen internationally—renowned scientists were in Singapore recently for the inaugural Global Young Scientists Summit.
Among them were Nobel Prize winners Eric Cornell and Ada Yonath, who gave talks, participated in panel discussions and mentored young scientists during their time in Singapore.
The discoveries that garnered them the prestigious Nobel Prize were years in the making.
In 2009, Professor Yonath became the first woman in 45 years to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry — after documenting the spatial structure of a ribosome, which are used by cells to make protein.
She said the discovery — the culmination of 20 years of research — was a dream come true.
"This was overwhelming, it is unbelievable, inside me I couldn’t sleep, I saw it all the time," said Ms Yonath.
For Professor Cornell, who lost an arm to flesh—eating bacteria a few years ago, his discovery was the highlight of his career.
The physicist was one half of the duo that created a new form of matter — called a Bose—Einstein condensate — which had been predicted as early as the 1920s, but had never been proven up to that point.
Professor Cornell, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001, said: "It was exciting to win the Nobel Prize but not as exciting as it was to make the experiment work.
"It was 1995 when the experiment worked, I loved that! It was a sense of great power and excitement."
The loss of his left arm hasn’t stopped him from going about his life and work as per normal.
Professor Cornell said: "It wasn’t very difficult to adapt...I am at a point in my career where I do not use my hands to adjust the apparatus.
"I have graduate students who are working, and I explain to them what to do, and they do it. So it hasn’t changed my life very much. I have learnt how to type very rapidly with one hand..."
For both of them, science was a love affair that began when they were very young.
When she was five years old, Professor Yonath fell two floors trying to gauge the distance between the floor and the ceiling. She broke her hand in many places.
Meanwhile, Professor Cornell used to solve physics brainteasers when he had trouble falling asleep.
He said: "For me, I feel that learning physics is like discovering the secrets. You know maybe you are an actor, and performing in a play, and you get to go behind the scenes and see how the play comes together.
"I think as a physicist, it is like that. You get to go behind the scenes, find out what is really going on. I feel it is almost like secret knowledge."
And it is a love affair that has endured.
Professor Yonath said: "Once it becomes boring, I will stop. As long as it is interesting, my curiosity drives me. Passion for science and curiosity."
Both scientists said that summits which bring an international mix of young scientists together could pave the way for future collaborations.
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