Scientist Talks: Professor Stuart Maudsley
Next in our Scientist Talks video series, we speak to Professor Stuart Maudsley, the Odysseus Professor of Receptor Pharmacology at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. We spoke to Stuart about the importance of motivation in science research, why it’s easy for scientists to become demotivated, and how he motivates himself and his team.
Hi Stuart! Could you tell us a bit about where you’re based and what you’re working on currently?
My name is Stuart Maudsley, and I'm the Odysseus Professor of Receptor Pharmacology at the University of Antwerp. My lab is called the Receptor Biology Lab and we are trying to engineer drugs to control G protein-coupled receptors that regulate the network of proteins controlling the ageing process. We're trying to stop and arrest multiple types of disease that are linked to the ageing pathologies. We have a broad program with a big interest in developing some of our early leads into real actionable drugs that can hopefully be delivered to the market within the next five to ten years.
Motivation can be defined in a few different ways, so what do you mean when you talk about motivation?
Well, motivation for me is the drive that makes you want to get up in the morning. I’m constantly thinking about what I'm doing all the time, and in essence, there's never any downtime. But the motivation that drives that thinking, and drives me once I get into work, is the desire to do good.
In biological science and biomedical science, the good that we do is actually to bring something to healthcare, either through lifestyle interventions, drug remediation, or diagnostic screening. And now we're in a very interesting era in which we are experiencing a global pandemic and a global challenge to healthcare, so it's very easy to see why healthcare is so important.
A lot of scientists, with respect to their motivation, ask themselves why what they’re doing is that important? It's incredibly important now because we see with COVID-19 that this is a unique entity in which there is a very strong ageing component. So, the one thing I try to get across to my team is that there's a tremendous proximity to our research that’s driving a really important healthcare issue.
If you think about the meaning of life, for scientists the motivation is to make the world better for other people, in huge ways, small ways, it doesn't really matter how big your impact is, as long as your impact is positive, and helps others. That's my motivation, and I try to speak that message to my lab and to all my collaborators and friends. It's a simple message, but it's very effective and it can be applied to lots of different circumstances.
Why do you think motivation is so essential when it comes to a research career?
I think it is absolutely vital, because science is tough beyond belief. It's horribly tough. It's a lot of work. It's a lot of effort. And there are many, many times in which huge amounts of time and effort are spent for what seems like very little outcome. So the drive and the motivation to do the work that we do, and to help people and collaborate, and produce findings and bring our knowledge to other people, all of that is so important. That inner drive that accompanies you every morning makes dealing with those day to day difficulties that science brings that much easier.
I often remind my students of the fact that they are seeing things that have never been seen by any other human, they're the first person in the world to see this, and that is so special. The problem of course is that there's no textbook, there's no one to help. Suddenly you're the expert and it's down to you. You have to be the one to create the knowledge base, and that’s very daunting and very scary. A lot of people feel nervous about it. But you have to take confidence from it and use it to motivate yourself to say, hey, I can really help the world and I can help people, and I can potentially develop a pharmacotherapeutic that could control age related diseases.
What are the biggest barriers to motivation that scientists come up against, and what are the ways in which scientists can become demotivated?
I think the demotivation issue is very important. We see this a lot with both young scientists and older scientists. With younger scientists, often it can feel very daunting, and the one major issue that they have is competition. I remember when I was a young student, I would go into the lab every day and I would check the latest papers coming out and see all my competitors producing great work. And it was just terrifying! So I stopped looking after a while because I realised I couldn't compete with everyone on the planet. Even if you work 24 hours a day, you won’t be able to compete with everyone. The way to get around that is to try to look for a unique niche, and try not to copy other people. One of my previous mentors said they stopped reading papers a long time ago and they became far more creative because they weren't chasing other people in their work. So don't let competition demotivate you because there are thousands of labs around the world working 24 hours a day and it's impossible to compete with everything and everyone.
The other thing which is often demotivating for a lot of scientists is the expectation to change and develop and grow, which can seem scary for people when their future might not be certain. As a PhD student, you’re always worrying about what your next job will be, will I go into a postdoctoral fellowship? Am I going to go into industry? Am I going to do something else? And that's why my job is to provide a mechanism and a support structure to maintain motivation and identify the best goals for people, to help them to plan a future. I always have a plan for all of my students and for myself, for five to ten years. The best way to see how important your motivation is, is to create your future, and to engineer your success and engineer your development.
One of the hardest things in science is that you put so much in, but often you get so little back. But for your career prospects and your personal development, it can be a 100% return. If you learn a new technique, if you write a new paper, or if you present some findings, that's all positive for you. And that's a great way of extracting positivity and motivation for your future. Just dealing with results day after day can be boring and tedious, and good supervisors try to avoid thinking like that because they know that good results are sporadic. There are days, sometimes weeks when it's dead, but you know it will happen eventually, and they will reach their goal and progress to the next level.
So, fear of progress and competition with others, that's what I try and work on to alleviate. I remind my team that whatever goal we’re trying to achieve, no matter how huge or small, all we want is progress, not perfection. And if we can see progress on a daily basis, whether it be personal or academic or results based, that's a motivator. If you see what you’re doing is making a difference, then that's going to motivate you to do it again. Just relying on one simple output or one simple index of productivity, which is a huge issue in science these days, can be demotivating when you have such a poor return on investment. So having a multi-dimensional approach to seeing what success really is can be the key to regulating how motivated you are to achieve that success.
What are the main ways you make sure you keep your motivation, and how do you motivate your team?
You've got to have fun. You've got to have fun doing your work. It might be a tiny, minuscule percentage of your day, but you've got to have some fun. Have fun doing the work, writing, presenting, you’ve got to have fun talking to the people in your lab. You need to have an enjoyment of your scientific life and enjoyment of your own personal life too. We always have incredibly easy going, light-hearted meetings where we’ll spend a few minutes watching funny things on YouTube or talking about things that we've done. We don't just do science. We're regular people that enjoy a joke and a laugh.
And we have a constant pizza fund going, that's the one thing that has been shown to be the most important motivator! Do you want more holidays, more money or more pizza? Pizza wins every single time! So we now have a continuous pizza fund in the lab to make sure that it's always available there on tap when people want it. That always works, it always alleviates most problems!
Enjoying yourself and working hard but not taking things too seriously is important. It can be very cool when you work as a team, and it's so much more enjoyable when you’re surrounded with people that also enjoy their work. Of course nobody is super happy and positive all the time, that's impossible and we accept that. But when you do get to enjoy things, really enjoy them! Extract everything you can from them. We're not here forever, so you've got to enjoy your time, and you've got to enjoy your work, and the people that enjoy their work the most do the best work. When people are happy, people work better together, people do more, and everyone wins. I win, my team wins, our group wins and hopefully society wins. With this drive and this push, by doing it in an enjoyable way we can reach huge, huge goals, and we hope we’re just on the edge of something really quite profound. When you're that close, that really helps, but it's all incremental. On a single day your input might seem tiny, it might look insignificant, but that one day is part of the mechanism to enormous success. That's what’s often forgotten when you hear a Nobel Prize winner speaking about their achievements, you hear about their successes but not about their many, many days of achieving nothing!
So always keep your eye on the prize. That's why you're doing it, you might not get there but someone will, and you will be part of that ultimate prize. As long as you always remember that what you're doing is important and has a context in people's lives, that's fantastic. But you've got to enjoy doing it, otherwise you won't want to get up in the morning. That's what we really aim for in our lab.
How can people contact you or connect with you online if they'd like to?
I am a huge proponent of social media, so we have a Facebook page, a Twitter page, we're on ResearchGate and Instagram. I even have an ETER9 page which is a computational analog of myself which is under work at the moment. I am very interested in outreach and interaction with people, and I feel it's a duty and a job to help demystify science, especially now, when everyone is interested in science and health. I've been the recipient of lots of great mentoring over the years, and it's part of my job now to help others and to help the understanding of science. So I'm available on LinkedIn and all the standard social media platforms, so please contact me there.
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