The life lessons of Marie Curie for researchers

On this day, November 7th, 1867, the year that Karl Marx published the first volume of his Das Kapital and Alfred Nobel patented dynamite, an iconic woman was born.

Marie Curie – the obsessive genius, the inspiring woman, the mother and the wife. Breaking the societal barriers of her time and crossing geographical borders, Marie made an immense contribution to the fields of chemistry and physics. Her contribution is equally important for establishing the role of women in science.

Marie’s path to success is an acknowledged inspiration to all, yet we do not talk as much about the actual human price of this contribution. A few recently read biographies of Marie Curie revealed this woman to me in a new light. I believe we should talk more about the practicalities of her life among the researchers, especially the early stage ones. Marie Curie’s strongly interlinked professional and personal lives provide some invaluable lessons to those who wear lab coats and make their way through the fascinating yet challenging world of scientific discoveries.

Mentor is important. Marie’s subject for PhD research was smartly suggested not by her official adviser but by her husband Pierre, who was quite a bit older and had an extra decade of research experience. Initially Marie was intrigued with Röntgen’s X-rays, but so were 65% of all published papers of the Academy of Science in Paris at that time. Pierre Curie suggested,  instead, to look at the abandoned Becquerel rays, which turned out to have a huge potential. Sometimes good advice is the most valuable gift you can receive in life and you are lucky to have someone who can give it.

Friendships in work are valuable. Marie did not have a wide circle of friends, but rather a few close friendships. She always found it was important to have someone to talk with about work. Luckily, she had her husband, Pierre, whose own scientific background enabled him to engage Marie about her work. After his death she always had assistants (one of them turned into a love affair) and her daughter working side by side in the lab. She constantly felt the need to discuss her work and bounce the ideas back and forth. Don’t we all recognize that feeling? Research is a hard, often lengthy, physical and mental process and it is essential to have the opportunity to talk about it and be understood by people who are in the same boat. Go drink that coffee with the colleagues and invest in the friendships in the lab!

Persistence or repetitive work? One of Marie’s Nobel prizes (for discovery of radium and polonium) was for the most laborious repetitive work that demanded huge physical strength and was not even performed in a proper laboratory. For four years Marie tried to isolate enough radium to be detected and characterized as a chemical element. She processed tons of pitchblende residue along with hundreds of tons of rinsing water and thousands of chemical treatments and distillations to get a minuscule amount of the new element. This is probably where the persistence of her scientific reputation was truly formed. Think about Marie’s commitment when you are doing your experiment for the nth time. Sometimes you just need to believe and keep going.

Productive time and down time. Marie’s most productive research years in the lab, or at least those that were recognized with Nobel prizes, were at the start of her research journey, when she worked on radioactivity and discovered two new elements. It is not often mentioned that she also experienced bouts of depression and had to take time off to recover. This was especially true after the unexpected death of her husband and when her love affair did not end well. At one stage she was away from the lab for almost 1,5 years. She was away from her children for that amount of time too, but that’s a separate story. Scientists are humans; we all have bad days or even bad seasons. It is wise to recognize these periods in our lives and take appropriate action to rest and heal.

Scientists are not always right. They might have been good at doing experiments or coming up with the ideas for the experiments, but Marie and Pierre were not always right about the conclusions. They published a paper, on which other scientists disagreed and eventually the Curies realized their mistaken opinion and acknowledged their peers. Their daughter Irène and her husband Frédéric Joliot-Curie paid an even higher price for their incorrect interpretation of the results – by missing not just one but two Nobel prizes (for the discovery of neutrons and positrons)! They got the Nobel prize in the end, or did they just get lucky? Science is a tough game…

These are just some highlights that I want to bring to the attention of a young researcher. Marie Curie’s life has left us many lessons and the greatest of all is that to be a scientist means so much more than to do your experiments in the lab. The great scientific achievements come at a great price of hard and repetitive work, productive and not so productive times, being right and sometimes being wrong, the support of your lab friends and timely advice of a good mentor. Have fun on your research journey!