A student's question can spark a scientific discovery, Nobel laureate tells youth forum

"Teaching can sometimes be a big help towards research," said Professor Rudolph A.Marcus.
"Teaching can sometimes be a big help towards research," said Professor Rudolph A.Marcus. PHOTO: NTU

SINGAPORE -An unrelated question from a student can lead to an aha moment "by a very devious route", a Nobel laureate told a global youth forum here.

"Teaching can sometimes be a big help towards research," said Professor Rudolph A.Marcus, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1992 for his contributions to the theory of electron transfer reactions in chemical system.

He said: "In my own case, the prize for electronic transfer came about as a result of a student's question. Not a student's question on electronic transfer, but a student's question on a particular way I was teaching some course related to long chain molecules with charges on them...By a very devious route, a student's question led to an interesting development."

Professor Marcus was speaking on Wednesday (Jan18) at the International Science Youth Forum. Now in its ninth year, the five-day event has brought together seven scientists (including four Nobel laureates), and 120 students from 43 different schools and 19 countries, through a series of discussions, masterclasses, and a research poster competition. It ends on Thursday (Jan 19).

It is organised by Hwa Chong Institution and Nanyang Technological University (NTU). This year's theme is Innovation For A Better Life.

The annual forum is modelled on The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings in Germany, annual scientific conferences where students have a chance to interact with Nobel laureates.

NTU president Bertil Andersson, 68, said: "It's (about) getting young scientists to meet the best scientists in the world. If I were to use one word, it (would be) 'inspiration'."

At Wednesday's (Jan 18) dialogue session, students posed a steady stream of questions to Professor Marcus, and Millennium Technology Prize and A. M. Turing Award recipients Professor Michael Gratzel and Professor Barbara Liskov.

These ranged from questions about ethics in science, to how much freedom scientists have from corporations, and the overlap between science and the humanities.

After Wednesday's dialogue session at Hwa Chong Institution, guest of honour Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills), urged students to consider the "human element" of the sciences - how they might use scientific knowledge to serve others.

"Ask non-science questions. We are all brought together by the humanity of our work," he said, in response to the "human" issues featured in the dialogue session that afternoon .

Said the student organising committee's co-chair Chiang Yan Qi, 17, a science stream student who performs at poetry slams: "I like how the scientists (on stage) approached the subject matter from both a scientific and humanist perspective."

Taiwanese student Yeh Kuan Ting, 16, who attends the maths and science gifted programme at Jianguo High School in Taipei, saw the forum as a chance to learn about different cultures and school systems. Impressed by the students who organised the event, he said: "Back in my schoool, we tend to (be more) test-oriented. We need to focus more on teamwork and organising events."