Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Trust in research

One of the comments on the last post reminded me of my friend, we'll call her Annie, who quit science partly because the lab she worked in as a grad student was in the business of producing and publishing a giant load of crap.

I was talking to another grad student today who feels the same way.

Ahh, the cycle of research life. It's so beautiful. I'm looking forward to when he pupates.

Another comment mentioned something about how the work "now" (government or industry was implied) is "more rigorous and true" than in academia.

These things, taken together, make me sad. I really do have faith in science, absent of the politics anyway. Not that such a thing really exists outside of my personal vacuum, but hey, most days I like it in my vacuum. Whoosh!

Case in point: I love it when things I did, or ideas I've had, are proven, over and over again, by other people.

Something I proposed in a grad school exam got published by a very respectable lab in a top tier journal.

This amused me no end, because the professor who graded my exam thought my idea would never work, and gave me a low score.

But I'd like to think that, despite one commenter's description of my career as "quixotic" (great word btw, I'll always be amused by insults phrased with good vocabulary), I really do have a good head for science.

Similarly, every now and again I get to do an experiment or read a paper that relates to my thesis project (from the days of yore). It is so gratifying to see people are working on this stuff and taking what I found and making it more applicable to what I really care about: human disease. It is reproducible by multiple people in multiple labs, all over the world.

I love that!

I can see, on the other hand, how sitting in journal clubs and lab meetings as a grad student in a lab that manufactures and manipulates giant loads of crap.... would lead a person to believe that research is mostly crap.

I too have had this experience. Some groups just like to shred everyone else's hard work, while glorifying their own.... crap.

Right now I'm lucky enough to interact with a few people who are genuinely constructive when I ask for feedback on my work. Even the relatively nasty people I can't avoid usually make good scientific sense and my work is stronger for it. This hasn't always been the case, so I appreciate it more now than I would have when I was younger.

I think the key to navigating the sea of information is knowing how to evaluate what's reasonable and believable and what's not.

It's really easy to feel overwhelmed by the literature, for example, and not know what to believe, if you're in grad school or a new postdoc in a new field, and you're not armed with the basics.

I really think the least we can do for students is give them the tools they really need. I always say I've forgotten the vast majority of information I memorized for exams in school, but I know the concepts. I went out of my way to learn the concepts I knew I would need, and that guides me. I went outside the curriculum, I read things on my own, I did whatever I had to do. I didn't get perfect grades and I didn't care. But I learned a heck of a lot of useful stuff.

Most of the mistakes I see people making in lab- on a daily basis, mind you- stem from a complete lack of fundamentals.

I think (and blog) a lot about why smart people leave research and academia in particular.

My friend "Annie" is very smart, smart enough to think critically about other people's work, and her own, and notice the problems.

However, Annie was not so good at seeing the forest for the trees when it came to her thesis project. And she had no creativity for science, which I always found odd since she's a very creative person.

Annie had no ideas for projects of her own, or new approaches that would help her put at arm's length some of the problems with her lab and the approaches her advisor suggested.

One of the things I like best about science is that if you have a good eye for interesting problems, the challenge is in figuring out how to ask the questions in a meaningful way that will give you meaningful answers.

One of the hardest things for me was learning that sometimes you have to go against your advisor to do things the right way.

I'm okay with that now. I've learned that they generally will forgive me if I bring them nice data.

But I have to admit, and maybe not everyone feels this way, but it never bothered me that I have to sort through the crap to figure out what I believe.

To me it's not much different from religion or the news. A lot of it is crap. But I know what makes sense to me, logically and intuitively, and what doesn't.

Actually I got into science partly because somewhere along the way I realized that the stuff in textbooks isn't all true, and that excited me. So I like looking for the holes.

The trick is getting people to relinquish their textbook view of science. Once you get used to the idea that learning is better than knowing, you're halfway there.

I just wish we could get more people to realize this.

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At 4:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not to be argumentative for the sheer sake of it, but is learning better than knowing? More fun, occasionally... but often expensive in reagents and time and effort. As a trivial case, I know that you have to heat water up and add glucose slowly to the water to get a 40% glucose solution, but learning that probably wasted a good hour of my life chipping away at what resembles rock candy. :(

At 8:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Furthermore, learning is done in order to know.
Science is done to find the holes, or to try to fill them in as best we can at the time.
It can be fun.(!) It be backbreaking and mundane.(!!!)
Actually I think the learning is the fun part too. Perhaps, scientifically speaking, the less meaningful part. What I think makes the learning fun is feeling that you are going feels good to have 'cognitive momentum.' It feels anticlimactic and oh-so-fleeting-short and bitter-sweet-empty when you reach 'the end point.'
Trouble is, there are always end points.
SO, gather rosebuds while ye may?
Or something more satisfying?
Or who cares? whatever...


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