Successful careers begin at school, says Alberta's Nobel Prize winner

"Young people should work hard and take things as they come."
—Nobel Laureate Dr. Richard Taylor

An internationally renowned scientist says successful careers begin at school, often with teachers who provide inspiration as well as instruction.

In 1990, Dr. Richard Taylor, a graduate of Alexandra High School in Medicine Hat, was honoured as Canada's first Nobel Prize winner in physics. Today, he attributes much of his success to the school teachers he encountered in Alberta.

"In high school I did reasonably well in mathematics and science, thanks to some talented and dedicated teachers," he says. "My chemistry teacher, Mr. Pederson, was the teacher who nurtured my interest in science. He instilled the idea in his students that science was important. He made classes so interesting that I always looked forward to the next one. I learned a great deal from him."

Even so, says Taylor, his teachers probably had little reason to expect great things of him. "I wasn't an outstanding student, although I did read quite a bit and high school mathematics came quite easily to me. You don't necessarily have to be a great student to do well later in life, though it is always important to work hard."

Despite some difficulties with low grades in high school, Taylor attended the University of Alberta where he was allowed to register in honours physics. He became interested in experimental physics and continued his studies towards a master's degree. Taylor then entered the graduate program at Stanford University in California. "I found I had to work hard to keep up with my fellow students [at Stanford], but learning physics was great fun in those surroundings."

What advice does a Nobel Prize winner have for Alberta students?

"Young people should work hard and take things as they come," he says. Luck plays a major role in life, and the opportunities are going to be different for everyone.

Taylor agrees with the words of scientist Louis Pasteur: "Luck favours only those who are well prepared." Taylor says that an important part of preparation includes reading as much as possible. "It's fun to understand things, and if you're interested, you should learn all you can. Reading gives you independence and a sense of freedom." He also believes it's important to be educated in a broad range of subjects and to retain intellectual flexibility.

"One thing that hasn't changed since I went to school is the genuine commitment teachers have to the success of their students," he notes. Taylor sees teaching as a calling; successful teachers are those who can turn on the light of understanding in their classes. "Teachers can explain things but without understanding on the part of the student, it will mean little," he says.