December 2010

Tennis in Biochemistry

About three years ago, I took up competitive tennis. I had never played any competitive sports as a kid and wanted to return to tennis after a 20-year break. I signed up for lessons from one of the terrific Stanford University women’s team coaches, and after a year of relearning my ground strokes (topspin!), I joined a local United States Tennis Association adult league team. Immediately apparent was the fact that my opponents were much more competitive than me. How was that possible? The world of science can seem like a very competitive place, and I am not usually thought of as a shrinking violet.

Unlike in science, in tennis there always is one winner and one loser. When I started, I was happy winning some great points, out-rallying an opponent and keeping him or her at the baseline. Winning matches was something quite different— and it was clear that some of my opponents REALLY wanted to win by any means possible. How I hated their lobs and dink shots! Match toughness gets easier with experience, and now, after a few years of practice, my nerves are a little calmer at the start of most matches. Confidence also comes from previous wins and hard work on my skill set. There has been improvement, after hours of continued instruction and practice, but it comes much slower at this stage of my life. I try to remind myself that my game is now much more multifaceted than it ever has been, and it really does continue to get better at a slow but steady pace.

How is it possible that tennis is more competitive than science? A good aspect of science is the fact that the corroboration of important results by multiple labs benefits our field tremendously. When two labs are working on the same question, they often will take independent approaches to come to a similar conclusion. That doesn’t mean I like the idea of two students staying up into the wee hours to load the same gels on opposite sides of the country. That being said (journal editors take note), it is important when two labs obtain similar findings; we suffer when multiple labs fail to reproduce a published finding, because no one ever learns that a published result may not be correct.

As a discipline, there are important things we can learn from tennis. Consider the top tennis professionals who hone their skills through four to six hours of practice every day. They have training coaches and psychological coaches and couldn’t succeed without them. We all are professional biochemists. What are we doing to stay at the very top of our game? Probably not enough. Any time we attend a lecture outside our field, we are broadening our horizons and increasing our chances of learning a new approach to apply to our own work. The very best scientists are taking cues from neighboring disciplines and keeping their ears open for any new technology to streamline the path to discovery. Attending meetings also is an important way to keep up with the latest findings and ideas in a field.

What about courses? Younger scientists take courses at Woods Hole and Cold Spring Harbor laboratories, but we all could benefit from additional courses in the newest technologies available to us. Offering courses is something that the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology might consider, and if you have ideas for courses that would benefit our members, please let us know. We are trying to offer breadth at the annual meeting, and our special symposia series are designed to benefit our members. Spending a week learning a new software package or experimental approach could benefit all of us. A fresh perspective can raise our performance to our full score advantage.

How many of our students and postdoctoral fellows consider faculty members to be their coaches? Maybe if we thought of ourselves more as coaches, we would do a better job as mentors. A coach would be sure that students and postdocs were learning all the skills they needed to be successful in the future, including picking important questions, reading the literature and learning the techniques needed for their projects. A coach would take the time to help them improve their writing and speaking skills and explain how manuscripts are reviewed. And, of course, we need to cheer on our students the most when experiments aren’t working and guide them back onto a path to success.

More experienced scientists need coaches as well. Career coaches exist, but senior scientists should continue to seek out mentors to help them be successful in their programs and achieve the success they are hoping for. Would a for scientific mentors be helpful to our members? Members could offer their services by discipline and experience and provide guidance in grant writing, project development, career advancement, etc. I would like to believe that our members would be happy to step forward to answer requests for guidance in these areas.

I recently watched a U.S. Open semifinal tennis match between Venus Williams and Kim Clijsters. The two superb athletes played at the top of their games; their shots hit every corner of the court, and their skills were simply amazing. But it was mental focus that distinguished the players and led to Clijsters’ win. Williams lost her serve in a key tie-breaking second set; the wind didn’t help, but it is hard to explain how such a strong server suddenly lost five points while at serve.

How often do we really focus on identifying the most important questions rather than on making this week’s experiments work? No matter how much I may complain, it is while I am writing a grant that I am the most creative and spend the most time thinking hard about my science. On regular days, one tends to focus on the day’s experiment rather than a longer term vision. It is important to get back to the big picture, as well. The very top scientists are successful because they identify the most important problems in science and use the most powerful approaches to address them. In times of limited research dollars, it is more important than ever to identify the most important areas for future work.

Hopefully, we play the game of biochemistry because we share the same passion for science as tennis players do for their game. We usually aren’t paid the million-dollar purses won by professional tennis players. But the satisfaction of important discoveries during a career of research far surpasses the pleasure that any cash award can bring us (okay, cash awards aren’t all bad). We all can benefit from any activity that will improve our games, whether we are biochemists or world-class tennis champions.

ASBMB President Suzanne Pfeffer ( is a biochemistry professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

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