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Nobel laureates and MacArthur fellows offer lessons in perseverance

In a fall quarter class featuring Stanford’s own Nobel laureates and MacArthur “genius” fellows, students learned how behind every success is a story of perseverance, frustration, and failure.

Alvin Roth, recipient of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Economics, talked with Ran Abramitzky about his pioneering work developing the lifesaving “kidney exchange” program that matched donors and patients as part of a unique fall quarter class, ECON 3: Big Ideas: Conversations with Stanford’s Own Nobel Laureates & MacArthur “Genius” Fellows. (Image credit: LiPo Ching)

Curing children’s brain tumors. Cooling atoms and building an atomic clock. Improving the targeting of cancer pharmaceuticals. Helping patients find a lifesaving new kidney.

These were just some of the bold innovations Stanford faculty helped pioneer and that they discussed in a unique fall quarter class, ECON 3: Big Ideas: Conversations with Stanford’s Own Nobel Laureates & MacArthur “Genius” Fellows.

Some 350 Stanford students gathered once a week to hear Ran Abramitzky, the senior associate dean for the social sciences in the School of Humanities and Sciences (H&S), in conversation with 11 Stanford scholars whose groundbreaking discoveries earned them the most prestigious prizes in academia, including Nobel Prizes and MacArthur “genius” fellowships.

“Stanford is a fabulous place – there are only a handful of universities in the world where such an event series is even possible,” Abramitzky said. “I wanted to showcase some of our incredible faculty and to inspire students to think about big ideas and aim to make a positive impact in the world.”

Each guest talked candidly about their personal and professional paths, sharing how for all the success they had there were also many failures and rejections. Others encountered prejudice that almost led them to abandon their academic journey entirely.

One speaker was Michelle Monje, a leading neuro-oncologist in the Stanford School of Medicine who is trying to find a cure for a lethal type of childhood brain cancer. In 2021, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship for her work pioneering the emerging field of “cancer neuroscience.”

Monje shared how she always wanted to be a doctor – a childhood dream that was nearly extinguished by a remark her high school biology teacher made when she received a low score on a test. Monje recounted how he told her, “Oh, don’t worry, sweetheart. It’s a rare woman who has a mind for science.”

Monje was 15 at the time and was crushed. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m not smart enough,’ ” she shared with Abramitzky’s class.

As an undergrad, Monje decided to become an English major and find a career that was adjacent to medicine. She was paired with a biology professor who reviewed Monje’s transcript and noticed Monje had received all straight As in biology with the exception of that one middling mark. She asked Monje what happened.

Monje shared what her high school teacher said and she recalled her professor replying, “We are going to fix this.” Monje took the professor’s class, worked in her lab for three years, and even published a scientific paper with her.

“It really felt like a save. I still think back to that conversation and the pivot that it made in my entire trajectory,” Monje said.

There would be other times in Monje’s life when people tried to dissuade her from pursuing what she wanted to do. She shared how she was told not to have children if wanted a stellar career. Monje ignored the advice and is now a mother of four.

But Monje was also given words of encouragement as well.

“Someone told me early in my career something that really stayed with me, and it was wonderful advice: You can do all the things but maybe not at the same time,” Monje said. “Life is long, and you get to do it all, but you have to make priorities.”

Monje’s personal story left a lasting impression on economics major Isamar Marte Núñez, ’26.

“Dr. Michelle Monje’s insights resonated deeply with me,” Núñez said. “Her perspective, especially on being a woman in science and navigating the complexities of motherhood while pursuing impactful work, served as a poignant reminder of the diverse paths one can take within the academic realm.”

Rethinking ‘failure’

Another speaker was Carolyn Bertozzi, who in 2022, received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work developing bioorthogonal chemistry, which allows scientists to explore and track biological processes without disrupting the normal chemistry of cells. Her innovations have advanced research into cancer immunotherapies, among other lifesaving applications.

Bertozzi also discussed the importance of perseverance and not giving up.

When Abramitzky asked Bertozzi, who was also awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1999, to recount times during her career when she felt frustrated or had a research experiment that failed, she immediately replied: “How much time do we have?”

For Bertozzi, she puts “failure” in quotation marks.

“ ‘Failures’ in research are not really a failure so much as we had a hypothesis, we did experiments to test the hypothesis, and we were wrong,” Bertozzi said. “Sometimes people find that to be frustrating. They might call it a ‘failure’ but it’s just part of the learning experience. There’s no way that you can get to what you would call a ‘success’ if you haven’t already had all the learning from those failures.”

Bertozzi also shared how she and other researchers in her lab have had papers turned down from academic journals, an experience Monje also talked about.

“The first paper from my lab was published in Science,” Monje recalled. “It was rejected five times before it was published in Science – and from three different journals. It was a lot of failure until suddenly it wasn’t. You just gotta keep persevering.”

Bertozzi also talked about the importance of perseverance when she shared advice to undergraduates interested in pursuing a STEM subject.

Bertozzi brought up the tediousness of the large, introductory survey courses undergraduates are required to take. “Some of these classes are pretty challenging, stressful, and, OK, boring. There I said it,” she said, adding how sometimes it can turn students off and they “bail.”

“I would say don’t bail out. Your experience in these big, intro courses is very far removed from what life as a practicing scientist is actually like,” Bertozzi said.

Stanford faculty shared their successes and failures with 350 students in the fall quarter class, Big Ideas. (Image credit: LiPo Ching)

Unexpected directions

The life of a scholar can go in many directions and sometimes unexpected places, as other guest speakers in Abramitzky’s course demonstrated.

The physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Chu has had incredibly varied experiences, including spending time in Washington, D.C., where he was the United States secretary of energy from 2009 to 2013. His scientific expertise proved invaluable when he was tasked to lead the effort to help contain the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Chu shared how then-President Obama personally asked him to oversee the response to the disaster after learning how he suggested to BP that they use gamma rays to see where the leak was coming from.

Chu recalled how some in the industry initially scoffed at the idea.

“The people at BP laughed and said, ‘Oh, Chu, he’s from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. That’s where the Hulk was formed.’ ” (Hulk is a Marvel superhero who got his immense power after being irradiated with gamma rays.)

But Chu’s idea turned out to be right.

Chu then pulled together a small group of “out of the box” thinkers who together came up with a solution to contain what is now considered to be the petroleum industry’s largest offshore oil spill in history.

The importance of teamwork was something nearly all speakers emphasized as integral to their work.

It was also something that students came to fully appreciate.

“Nearly every presenter who delivered their ideas to the class touched on the improbability of the lone genius,” said engineering student Aaryan Harshith, ’27.

For Harshith, hearing these experiences has made him feel energized. He added: “I feel excited about my future at Stanford. I feel a sense of urgency to dash toward my dreams at full speed, while still remembering that great work is often the result of years, if not decades, of compounded effort. The course will also continue to remind me that if I believe that something needs to change in the world, I have the potential to make it happen.”

Conversations were recorded and are available to watch on the Big Ideas website.

ECON 3: Big Ideas: Conversations with Stanford’s Own Nobel Laureates & MacArthur “Genius” Fellows was also open to the Stanford community and members of the public.

Abramitzky is also the Stanford Federal Credit Union Professor of Economics.

Bertozzi is the Baker Family Director of Sarafan ChEM-H, the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor in H&S, and professor, by courtesy, of chemical and systems biology and of radiology.

Chu is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor in H&S, and professor of molecular and cellular physiology, and of energy science and engineering.

Monje is the Milan Gambhir Professor of Pediatric Neuro-Oncology and professor, by courtesy, of neurosurgery, of pediatrics, of pathology, and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.