The week beginning from the 30th September 2011 has been a sad one in the worlds of science and technology. The passing of Ralph Steinman and Steve Jobs, both pioneers in their own fields, have brought a few things into perspective. Strangely both men succumbed to the same disease – pancreatic cancer – and both surpassed the expected life expectancy by far (it is usually deadly within 3-6 months, they both lived for years after initial diagnosis).
Ralph Steinman was awarded this year’s Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine. The 3 joint winners were announced on October 3rd, however he had passed away on September 30th. As many of you know (through the Rosalind Franklin story) Nobel prizes are not awarded posthumously. However, this time the committee will honor this award as they were unaware of his untimely death when the decision was reached. Steinman was chosen with the other 2 winners, Bruce Beutler and Jules Hoffmann, due to his seminal research on the immune system. For years after his discovery of dendritic cells in 1973, he and his research team tried to persuade the scientific community how important these cells were – that they were the missing link for precise targeting by white blood cells to fight infections. Eventually, his findings were accepted and have lead to new treatments for cancer patients. When he was diagnosed, he used dendritic therapy to treat his cancer.
Steve Jobs passed away on October 5th. He founded the company Apple in his twenties from a garage. He did not finish college, and yet still managed to achieve multiple successes. He developed the first personal computer with a navigation system by clicking on images. When he was 30, he lost his job with Apple (!) and went on to establish two more companies, NeXT and Pixar. Pixar went onto be the largest computer generated animation company, and Apple bought NeXT. He had therefore returned to a struggling Apple and within a year was running it again. He masterfully introduced the world to technology – iPod, iTunes, iPhone and now the iPad – which many of us can’t imagine life without. In 2005, he gave the commencement address at Stanford. It is an amazing speech and I encourage everyone to watch. The link is http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=UF8uR6Z6KLc
One of my favorite parts in this address is: “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on.”
I think the stories of both of these men are incredibly inspiring. Both faced adversity or difficult times and yet found the strength and motivation to keep going. They had great belief in their ideas and demonstrated courage and resolute commitment to remain on their own chosen course. Eventually, their tenacity paid off. Steinman may ultimately be responsible for saving many lives in the future and Jobs has irrevocably changed the face of technology. The saddening thing is that Steinman didn’t live long enough to know that he was awarded the highest honor bestowed on scientists.
As I reflected on the lives of these two amazing men, I have been reminded of something you often hear but don’t really believe. We should do the things we are most interested in and enjoy. When we do, we will be inspired to bigger and better things. None of us came into science for a 9-5 job or the money. We do it for the love of science and discovery. I wonder how many people reading this still have that undeniable love and desire to succeed.
If you have an amazing idea and want to begin your own company, would you actually do it? How many of us have the self belief to throw caution to the wind and face uncertainty and potential failure while we learn something new or begin a new enterprise? I hope that everyone can be as inspired as I am from these two lives to perform at your highest level and aim high. Shoot for the moon as even if you miss you will land among the stars.