Reflections on the Mechanics of Research

As I sit in my room on a lazy Sunday afternoon, I start to think about my last blog post – it’s been three days already. “I need to keep up the momentum”, I tell myself. That drive that, less than a week ago, relaunched this blog after I procrastinated for ages. If I don’t write something now, I won’t again for months, so here I am. But this isn’t a post reflecting about my writing habits, it’s about me and my peers – specifically, why we do things the way we do.

I’m writing this because I realize that I’m fortunate to work with incredible people who know many other incredible people and who enjoy collaborating and discussing ideas. Which means that, in my PhD, things are constantly in motion, new ideas pop up almost every day and there is always lots and lots to do.

That brings me back to a ubiquitous concept – momentum. In scientific research, after an idea is proposed, a plan is made to explore this idea. But every scientist knows the familiar feeling – weeks, months or years later the initial excitement fizzles out. Over the past few years of doing research, I’ve come to realize that this loss of momentum can’t be blamed solely on failure, it’s a combination of several different things.

Looking back, the idea just doesn’t seem as exciting as it used to.

Not because you later realize that someone has already tried it or that it’s generally a useless idea. It’s just not novel anymore – neither to you nor to the people with whom you’re working. Simply, it stops being new and therefore stops being attractive.

When the idea is first proposed, you know little about it – the possibilities are endless. Then during the research process, you (hopefully) learn more. And that should be enough to keep us going – as scientists we like to think that we find pleasure and motivation in the pursuit of knowledge. But the more familiar the topic becomes, the less drive we have to follow that particular line of research.

This is counter-productive of course because, although the idea is now familiarly boring to you, it is probably still novel and interesting to the scientific community. So the idea itself hasn’t lost its merit, but your valuation of it has diminished.

Is novelty more important to scientists than the pursuit of knowledge?

We lose confidence in the goals we set out to achieve.

It’s not that we lose confidence in our ability to achieve these goals. Although that’s also something that is extremely common and important, it’s a more gradual process that affects some people more than others. What I mean is that the goals themselves seem less within reach because of trivial and often illogical reasons.

Every setback – however small or easy to overcome – leaves a lasting mark on how likely we view a goal as “achievable”.  It seems absurd that the fact that a reagent turned out to be faulty and you wasted three weeks running Western blots in vain should affect how likely protein X protects against disease process Y. But this rather subtle logical fallacy (not sure if there’s a specific term for it in psychology, but there should be) commonly affects researchers and can be devastating.

This cumulative process sneaks up on you – seemingly harmless assumptions about your data pile up and little workarounds coalesce into the stuff of nightmares. Until finally, a swarm of bees invade the lab because someone forgot the window open and you just go home and give up on the entire project.

To me, proof that these small frustrations are responsible for destroying good ideas is that the people “in the trenches” are most prone to this loss of momentum. The undergraduate, MSc, and PhD students doing the hands-on work. I don’t think it’s because they’re less experienced and therefore less resilient. It’s just that they’ve seen things during the course of a project that their seniors, preoccupied with “bigger picture” thoughts, have not. Things that eventually have these poor souls perpetually repeating “Yeah, it was a nice idea – but it’s just not that simple“.

Give us a little push, and we’re off.

The problem may be that researchers, myself included, have low inertia – it’s easy to get us excited. Indeed, it’s very easy for us to excite ourselves as well (“What a great idea, if this works it could be groundbreaking!”). At least in the beginning when an idea is still fresh. This intellectual enthusiasm is a fundamental characteristic of a scientist, and I’m not saying it’s a bad thing.

What’s obviously bad is not pausing to think – really think – about an idea before diving into testing it. The sad thing is, the vast majority of researchers do stop and think. We list every possible outcome and every setback we can think of, until we’re convinced that we’re prepared for what’s to come. But often it’s still not enough to keep the momentum going down the road.

At this point in my career, I’m not sure if our low inertia is the gift/curse that will bless/haunt researchers forever no matter what we do, or if we can learn to be better at taking advantage of its perks and avoiding its drawbacks.

Scientists have low inertia.

 

I’d really like to hear what other scientists think about all this – because it could be just a matter of personality. Perhaps I’m an impatient defeatist with low self-confidence (trust me, I’m at least a little bit of each of those things) and thus, everything I mentioned applies to people like me but not the vast majority of researchers.

I have no clue – all I know is, even as I’m writing this post, it’s starting to look less like something that should be read by intelligent people and more like the incoherent ramblings of a frustrated graduate student.


Featured image: “Blurred motion Seattle Wheel at dusk 1” by Brent Moore, Flickr http://bit.ly/1UikTFI 

Scientists’ Creative Conundrum

It’s a great privilege of mine being one of the editors of our graduate program’s Charité Neuroscience newsletter (CNS – http://bit.ly/1HglVvV). One of the things I’ve noticed while editing the past seven issues is that, in general, scientists are great at journalism. We do our research diligently and excel at fact-checking and carefully interpreting what we find. But one thing that has stood out for me is that, in our quest to be accurate and factual, truly “scientific” if you will, creativity often takes a beating.

Billboards are designed to draw the reader’s attention to the article as they flip through the pages. In journalistic style, billboards are short excerpts from an article, usually placed somewhere on the page in large letters. They’re meant to be concise and catchy, but informative. Many of our writers, myself included, struggle with these little snippets – they don’t tell the whole story can be outright biased or easily misleading (intentionally or otherwise). They’re also often fairly abstract and, as scientists, we just find them plain shady. A lot of substance is lost when brevity and attractiveness are the main goal – and we can’t really handle that – it feels … icky.

I think our reluctance to season our writing with creativity stems from the relationship between science, scientists, and the media. It’s no secret that scientific studies are sometimes outrageously misconstrued by the mainstream media. I’m not talking about when the media reports on bad science as if it were good – that’s ignorance, and it’s forgivable – but when good science is misrepresented for the sake of attracting readers. This happens on a daily basis and any scientist will tell you that it makes our jobs much more difficult. Not only does it spread false or inaccurate information, it also makes people’s trust in science diminish, especially when these stories are eventually debunked. So that’s why, when scientists write, our (somewhat condescending) attitude is: we should know better (than to do what they do)!

Of course, one difference between journalists’ and scientists’ writing is the intended audience. If, like the former, you intend to reach everyone then sensationalizing and exaggerating (at least just a little) might be unavoidable. Perhaps scientists need to accept that they’ll always have a limited readership (some call it the “wider scientific community”, whatever that means). That might help us write in a more attractive way without undermining our principles. The question is then, is it really “science journalism” if we know, even as we write it, that it’s not meant for everyone?

I want to write!

Probably not something you hear very often from a PhD student. Too reminiscent perhaps of that troublesome manuscript gathering proverbial dust for the past twelve months deep in the recesses of your hard drive, writing isn’t something a typical scientist yearns for. But after an embarrassingly long hiatus from posting on this blog, I realize – just now, tonight, as I’m writing this – how much I miss it. And how important it is to me.

Not that I haven’t tried – over the past (gulp) almost more than two years, I’ve told myself repeatedly that I want to get back on the blogging bandwagon – revamp this site, give it some flair to reflect the “new” me. The now seasoned (hah!) doctoral student – my countless meetings and discussions outnumbered perhaps only by the ensuing failures and frustrations.

All I’ve managed to do in that time is accumulate a dozen or so drafts of different blog posts (I truly despise that word now, draft, errgh). Sitting there on my computer, waiting. For what? Inspiration, I often tell myself – typical scientist behaviour.

So here it is – no long-winded comeback speech, promises of inspiring life lessons or anything of the sort. Just this – a short post to kick it off. Like everything in my life at the moment, the rest will come slowly – piece by piece.