The making of a good scientist is a somewhat mysterious process. The metrics that define good too, are at best, questioned. At worst, they are thought to contribute negatively to scientific practice and shape research environments for the worse. Young scientists in the classroom are similarly confronted with objective metrics meant to describe, and perhaps ascribe, their potential for future scientific research and discovery. At the same time, grades sometimes miss the mark, too. What happens to those who have the potential to be great scientists, but do not have it reflected in their transcripts?
Irving Weissman, professor at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, faced this as a high school student at Great Falls High School in Great Falls, Montana, where he graduated 43rd in a class of 360. In a rather unconventional series of events, it was ultimately a summer job coupled by intrinsic curiosity about science, rather than high school grades alone, that may have paved the path for Irving Weissman to make important discoveries and achieve an admirable level of professional success.
Weissman had heard of the laboratory of Dr. Ernst Eichwald at the Montana Deaconess Hospital, where Eichwald performed research on mice. Weissman initially found out about the opportunity from a friend, and decided to ask if he could spend the summer at the laboratory to take care of the mice. Reading a book about scientific discoveries that had been applied to medicine had sparked Weissman’s curiosity about science at the age of 10, and he very willingly pursued the opportunity to make $25 a month to be a mouse caretaker, research lab assistant, and autopsy assistant over doing other summer jobs, like washing cars. In summer of 1956, this is precisely what he did.
This eventually led to more experiments, Weissman doing his own research at the end of his senior year, and eventually supervising the younger students who would come to work at Eichwald’s lab. By the time he completed his senior year, some of the findings from the lab had been published.
This eventually led to his being accepted to the Stanford University School of Medicine, where he went on to make important discoveries about hematopoietic stem cells, such as being the first to identify and isolate human blood-forming stem cells responsible for the immune system. Even as a high school student, his contributions to research had translational value: the experiments he performed led to the first successful skin and organ transplantations in humans.
This makes his start in science, by many accounts, out of the ordinary. His supervisor had never asked him for his grades, and he designed and undertook scientific experiments independently and using his intrinsic ability to think experimentally. His early venture into laboratory work allowed him to cultivate this ability early on, allowed him to conduct independent research much earlier than his peers, and was likely a catalyst for the discoveries that he has made over the course of his career. It was there that he learned what textbooks could not teach: how to think scientifically, ranging from positing a research question to actually designing and carrying out an experiment that aims to provide an answer to it.