The secret to making a scientific discovery

Story highlights

  • Three leading scientists reveal the secrets behind their breakthroughs
  • The innovators answered questions during a CNN Tech Twitter chat

(CNN)Scientists spend years in search of answers to some of the world's biggest questions: Is there life beyond Earth? How can we use technology to save lives? What do we know about how humans evolved?

But what does it really take to make these breakthroughs in science?
    Some people believe you need vast amounts of money or funding, others stress access to equipment as the most important thing, while many believe it's about building a dependable research team.
    As part of CNN Frontiers, we held a Twitter chat asking three eminent scientists for their tips on making a scientific breakthrough: astrophysicist Sara Seager, paleoanthropologist Lee Berger, and biomedical engineer Chris Toumazou.
    They explained the secrets of their success to help future scientists reach that eureka moment.

    Q1. What are the essential steps for making a scientific breakthrough?

    Berger and Seager emphasized the importance of working hard, testing your hypotheses and often just following your instinct. They also stressed the need to persevere over a long period of time.
    Toumazou gave a step by step guide, and stressed the importance of stepping out of your comfort zone.
    A group promoting the professional well-being of African American physicists and physics students had some sage advice.

    Q2. What is the most common misconception about scientific endeavour or research?

    As well as our interviewees, other scientists joined in the chat to impart their wisdom. Between them they focused on the amount of work that goes into making a breakthrough in order to dispel the myths believed by some who believe it's just luck.
    Seager was keen to point out that creativity is also key when working in science and that success is not a straightforward process, just like in other industries.
    Twitter chat guest Professor Chris Toumazou pioneered a wave of multidisciplinary study and discovery within electronics, biology, genetics and health care -- including his "lab-on-a-chip," pictured.

    Q3.Who was the first person you told about your first major finding?

    The answers to this differed greatly. Some scientists chose to keep their discoveries to themselves in order to verify them, while others shared their news straight away.

    Q4. How do you keep motivated when things don't go as planned?

    Toumazou had some good advice about how to stay positive, no matter what the outcome of an experiment.
    Berger explained that discoveries don't always follow a strict plan.
    And Seager suggested stepping back to contemplate when things go wrong.
    1,700 bones and teeth retrieved from a nearly inaccessible cave near Johannesburg show the skeleton of Homo naledi, pictured in the Wits bone vault at the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand.

    Q5. Which other scientists have inspired you to succeed? How?

    A range of innovators from throughout history were highlighted for their inspirational research past.

    Q6. What advice would you give to someone pursuing their own scientific discovery?

    Being confident, having no fear and keeping good notes was the advice given to inspire the next generation of scientists.
    To find out more about the breakthrough research conducted by these, and other eminent scientists, read more from the CNN Frontiers series here.