HUPOST: Can you tell us what this prize, which is referred to as the Dutch Nobel Prize, means for you, and for the field?
Heck: The Spinoza prize is the most prestigious Dutch science award, and is given annually to three to four researches, selected from all disciplines of science.
It is of course an enormous honour to be awarded this prize, and while it’s known as the Dutch Nobel Prize, it evidently does not compare to the real Nobel. Nevertheless, it comes with a 2.5 million euro budget, to be spend freely for research, so it is a very strong driver for creativity and innovation.
Although a personal prize, I think this award is also an award for my group and the field, because the prize is an implicit recognition for the importance and impact of analytical chemistry, biomolecular mass spectrometry and proteomics.
HUPOST: You have your own Wikipedia page, and a list of prestigious awards to your name. What would be your advice to young researchers who want to make a difference?
Heck: If you want to make a difference, evidently you should keep up with the literature, so you know what lives in the field, but that knowledge should not stop you from doing the unexpected and you should always look for unexpected findings. In my view, these are the key to innovation and succes. And I try to encourage everyone not to be a follower; try doing something different than the other labs in your field. When you have a keen eye for the unexpected, and do original work, then you will be able to contribute unique findings and can make a difference. And find the right environment, as good mentors are way more important than a good lab-infrastructure.
HUPOST: When a researcher pursues something different, the research can also fail. Do you have any tips on how to deal with such setbacks?
Heck: We should not fear failure. In fact, most scientific experiments end in failure. There’s no satisfaction to be had from planning an experiment for which the outcome is already known. And never forget: after you encounter a few failures, the next success will taste so much sweeter!
HUPOST: If you were a starting scientist today, what topic would you choose?
Heck: My main driver is very broad: understanding how life works at the molecular level. Of course, ‘life’ is very diverse, and there’s much to study. But right now, I would love to look more into how the brain works at the molecular level. This is an area we still understand so little about.
In general, I strongly believe that everybody needs to find something that strongly attracts their interest, as it is very important in science to work on a topic you really care about.
HUPOST: Your lab has also produced very nice short movies to introduce science to the general public; how important is this outreach?
Heck: I think it is very important and exciting to outreach to the general public. But I have also learned that you need to have a strategy for these movies, so that they hit their mark. Importantly, it is also very much fun to make such movies. Overall, I believe that if you study proteins, and are excited about proteins, as I am, that you should also spread this excitement! And because the general public will not read our papers in Nature and Science, such movies are a great way to bring our research to a broader audience. It is particularly rewarding to see that some of our movies are featured in the Washington Post, but these are used in classrooms as well. If you make a movie, try to make them as multi-purpose as possible.
HUPOST: While on the subject of classrooms, do you believe that knowledge about proteomics should move into classrooms?
Heck: Yes, of course, although I would prefer a more overall view: we should be teaching more insight into life at the molecular level in the classrooms, and this should be based on knowledge of the entire cast of macromolecules (DNA, RNA, proteins) that feature in this grand spectacle we call live.
I also think that the progress of scientific knowledge in the life sciences are taking too long to reach the classrooms, and that is a pity. All the more so because the knowledge is so interesting and inspiring. A great example is the gene transcription machinery, which is not only a fundamental process in all life, but it also combines proteins, DNA, and RNA in a fascinating molecular machine.
HUPOST: Which of your contributions to the field gave you the most satisfaction?
Heck: That’s a difficult question. It’s like being asked to pick the favourite child amongst your children. But I really enjoy technology development. This because there is great satisfaction in receiving mails from other researchers that write to let you know that your technology has helped them do their research. Science is all about sharing after all, and when people pick up technologies that you’ve developed, and it works for them, that is extremely motivating.
In addition, new technologies often lead to breakthrough findings in biology. For instance, the EThcD technology we developed has led to the discovery of widespread proteasomally spliced HLA peptides, which shook up the field of immunology. So I really like the ability of technological breakthroughs to lead to a new understanding of biology, which is, after all, the goal!
Paper reference: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/354/6310/354