December 2010

Tennis in Biochemistry

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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Suzanne, I enjoyed reading your tennis-biochemistry article. Keep at it, at both! I wish I were still able to play tennis, but I can still remember all the fun i had while playing. Doing science was also great fun. Best wishes, Charley Yanofsky


In drawing an analogy between a demanding sport and And biochemical research the author makes an important point-that constant learning(training) are needed to stay at the top of your sport or profession. Irwin Fridovich


I especially like the "coaches concept" as I often feel that many look at the student/faculty, post-doctoral or junior faculty/chair relationships as employer/employee. And isn't it nice that when you have nothing, you're at LOVE? Bill Merrick




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