‘Age is an advantage’

BRUSSELS—Albert Einstein famously declared, “A person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of 30 will never do so.” That prophecy may be discouraging for scientists, especially as they approach that milestone. But former cardiology researcher Jonathan Sackner-Bernstein painted a more uplifting picture during a talk at theTEDxBrussels conference last week. Einstein was wrong, Sackner-Bernstein says: With age come skills, experience, and wisdom that make you more likely to come up with impactful ideas.

Sackner-Bernstein started his talk with the story of biologist Alexander Fleming, who famously discovered penicillin by accident, identifying the life-saving antibiotic in mold growing in his bacteria cultures. “I wish I knew when I was an academic that Fleming was 47” when he made that discovery in 1928, Sackner-Bernstein tells Science Careers in a follow-up interview. “He had done thousands of experiments, thrown away thousands of petri dishes, because mold was a nuisance. It was garbage that destroyed days and days of work,” he continues. When Fleming spotted an unusual phenomenon—bacteria colonies weren’t growing close to the mold—he was inspired to investigate further. “He had the experience and skills he’d built over those years, and he knew it was worth pursuing.”

He had the experience and skills he’d built over those years, and he knew it was worth pursuing.

Fleming is hardly the only example of middle-aged success. In a 2011 paper, Benjamin F. Jones and Bruce A. Weinberg reported the ages of Nobel laureates when they made their big discoveries. In the past century, they found, the “mean age of great achievement” was about 37 years old in physics and 40 in chemistry and medicine. And it’s on the rise, Sackner-Bernstein says. “In the early 1900s, when [Einstein] made that statement, the average age at which [Nobel Prize-worthy] discoveries were made in physics … was around 33.5. Now it’s in the upper 40s.”

That’s easy to say—but how do you do it? He advises scientists to build up their skills, experience, and imagination so that they can better recognize patterns. They should nurture trusting relationships with peers and mentors and share ideas without fear, he adds.

Above all, Sackner-Bernstein says, they should trust their intuition, whether or not it seems likely to bring prestigious scientific publications or other measurable accomplishments. “If you want to be an adventurer and find your mold like Fleming did, and have impact on some level, being married to the rewards—the milestones of an academic career—might not be the right thing for you.” 

Following your intuition can mean stepping off the typical academic path, Sackner-Bernstein says. He told the TEDxBrussels audience how one day, as a 42-year-old cardiologist, he spotted a graph that “just didn’t feel right” among thousands of studies he had read in journals. His gut feeling was that a new drug touted as a blockbuster didn’t really offer any advantage. That prompted him to publish a paper, and the use of the drug plummeted. He was proved right, and “it saved the health care system billions of dollars [and] enabled the physicians to focus on medicines that actually made a difference.”

That led him to work at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, where he became an associate center director, and then to his current consulting role for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Today, he is also CEO of his own company, ExVivos.

You can watch Sackner-Bernstein’s talk, on how age and experience prepares you to identify opportunities and pursue them to make a difference, below.

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