Defending basic science

Today I heard a really great talk by Patricia Brennan, a professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst. She studies sexual conflict and the evolution of duck penises, which have weird corkscrew shapes. Her research was attacked by many people who don’t understand the necessity for funding basic science, and she very eloquently defended her position in this article in April. Her defense of her research is notable in its uniqueness. Funding for basic science, particularly in evolutionary and organismal biology, is often under fire from politicians, the media, and the public. However, most scientists whose research is attacked do not defend themselves and their research. There are many reasons for this, but whatever the reason it prevents us scientists from educating the public about why basic science research is important.

Patricia Brennan’s seminar today convinced me that it is an incredibly important part of my job to help explain why basic research is important, which is why I’m writing this blog. Funding basic science research is important for many reasons, but one of the most basic ones is that EVERYTHING we use in daily life at one point stemmed from basic scientific research–clothing, antibiotics, computers, food, the list goes on and on. Patricia Brennan described scientific knowledge in an incredibly useful way: as a pyramid. Basic science provides the base for all scientific knowledge, and then applied research comes from innovative connections between pieces of the broad base of the pyramid and forms the upper point of the pyramid. In between is the so-called “translational research”, which is multidisciplinary work that bridges the gap between applied and basic science.



Don’t get me wrong–I’m not bashing applied science. It’s obviously incredibly important. But in order to know how the world works so that new applications can be innovated, it is necessary to have basic research to make new discoveries. Because discoveries from basic research can result in transformational ways of seeing the world (such as the discovery of Taq polymerase, which lead to a revolution in molecular biology techniques), it is inherently risky (but can have huge rewards). Although I say it is risky, I don’t want to imply that research that doesn’t get translated directly to applications is worthless–indeed, it helps expand the base of the pyramid, creating a broader base so that more applications can be discovered down the road. Many important innovations have resulted from research that had no idea it would be transformative–such as the discovery of Taq polymerase, or increasing air travel safety by understanding bird migratory patterns, and many more.

I am so glad Patricia Brennan gave her seminar and continues to bring this issue to the attention of many people. Every person that I can help understand why science funding is important for science and for everyone is another person who will support science and perhaps a re-allocation of the national budget. I hope this makes my readers think about science in a new way, or if you’re a scientist to re-consider your stand on interactions with the general public. Please share this and ask me questions if you want to continue the discussion.

Dealing with Disappointment

One of the least glamorous (and least well-known, I think) aspects of science is how many setbacks, difficulties, and tedious tasks we scientists are faced with. However, it comprises the daily grind for pretty much all scientists, and is one of the things that makes science difficult. I’ve been having a rough couple of research weeks, where my experiments keep failing. But that’s not why I’m writing this post. I’m writing this post for two reasons: 1) I want to bring up the un-glamorous side to research, because it’s often overlooked (especially in discussions of funding science) and 2) because I want to share/explain why I think there’s a pretty strong correlation between scientists and “nerds”/”geeks”.

Science research doesn’t work the way it seems to on TV or in movies. Most shows not only grossly underestimate the amount of time it actually takes to run assays (like genetic tests); many also make troubleshooting seem like all you have to do is chat about options with your colleagues. I only wish it was that easy! In reality, you chat about ideas with your peers, then implement one idea (with the appropriate controls), and evaluate the results. Often you have to test out many different options (each one taking as long or longer than the original assay) before landing on something that works.

Because of this tedium, it is easy to understand why science fiction and fantasy often appeal to scientists–I can only imagine a world where technology does all of the hard work for me, or where magic would do the heavy lifting. It can be incredibly reviving to escape to a fictional world that doesn’t have to be governed by the same rules the real world is governed by. Personally, escaping into a book is one of the best ways to deal with disappointment in my research. Other than reading and watching TV (i.e., escaping into a fictional world), I haven’t had all that many extra-curricular activities during grad school. This week, I’ve realized I need to start doing something that gives me the sense of accomplishment that I’m completely lacking in the lab. For instance, I decided to make myself a Halloween costume this year, and just sewing a hem this evening made me feel confident, competent, and like I can actually finish a project and do something tangible! I don’t know how much sewing I’ll really do, but it’s great to have it as a possibility, and I’m hoping to continue exploring my non-science-y options in the little free time I have.

Does anyone else have similar experiences, either with grad school or in other professions? How do you cope with disappointment in the workplace?

PhD Preliminary Exams

A couple weeks ago I promised a post about my preliminary exams. For those of you not familiar with the hierarchy of academia, you may have no idea what I’m talking about. So I want to explain this to all you good folks who are interested in science but may not know all that much about how everything actually works.

When you join a PhD program, you are usually just considered a generic ‘graduate student’, and thus you could either be on track for a masters. In fact, I recently discovered that at my school for the first year in grad school the office of graduate studies actually considers everyone to be a masters student. This apparently is for some financial reason that I don’t fully understand. Anyway, after ~2 years, during which you take classes, often teach laboratory sections, and start developing and beginning to work on your research plans, almost everywhere requires that you pass a set of exams. The structure of these exams differ based on your country, your school, your department, and your committee (every student has a committee of 4 faculty members, who are there to guide you, mentor you, and provide constructive criticisms on your project). Where I am, the exams begin after you’ve submitted your research proposal to your committee and consist of one written exam from each committee member followed by an oral exam with your entire committee.

The questions can be anything. Theoretically, you’re responsible for any topic within all of biology. However, my committee members focused mainly on things within the broad scope of my research proposal. The questions were generally fairly reasonable, and some of them were exactly what I had expected. Others definitely came out of left field. My committee members gave me anywhere from 8-48 hours to respond to their questions, and I wrote from 6-14 pages in response. It was a lot of hard work, holed up in tiny independent study room cubicles the library. It looked something like this:



Although it was so much hard work, writing all day almost every day for over a week, I found it to be surprisingly rewarding. To my fellow grad students out there, this probably sounds like blasphemy, because prelims are thought of as the worst thing in the world. However, my committee members asked me some really good questions that made me think about my project from different perspectives and encouraged me to explore some of the nuances of my project. 3 of my 4 written exams were open book, so I was able to do a lot of research and reading to answer the questions, and I found it surprisingly stimulating to do all the reading and discover new information about my field of biology.

Although being evaluated face-to-face in an oral exam is intimidating, my committee was overall very supportive. Although my project takes several risks (parts of it may or may not actually work), they were enthusiastic about the ideas and the possibility of how it might work. They also asked about my career plans and were very encouraging. Overall, my prelims were a surprisingly positive experience. Hopefully, for those of you facing prelims in the future my experience can be a new perspective on the exams. For those of you reading that have gone through prelims, what have your experiences been? Have they been similar? Really different? Post in the comments below!