Dr. Bohórquez is an Assistant Professor of Medicine and Assistant research Professor in Neurobiology at Duke University. He refers to himself as a “gut-brain neuroscientist” because he studies the way that the GI tract connects with the brain. Becoming a scientist was not a sudden transition as there was a gradual progression to his current position.
Dr. Bohórquez entered college already attracted to the idea of attaining a PhD. The fundamental reason he was attracted to science was curiosity, and he saw the way that PhD’s, “had the ability to lead a group in developing a project or doing research,” and the independence that they had. The combination of investigation and freedom was extremely enticing.
The first scientific project he encountered was during his senior year of undergrad. It was an evaluation of a new diet for piglets. The nutrition regimen’s goal was to make the transition from weaning to solid food did not cause severe problems. Previously, especially in industrial farming, there had been serious troubles with the transition. The project demonstrated the effectiveness of the new diet, but more importantly, he learned the most was that “he had the ability to test something in an animal… to create knowledge.” The investigative process that he learned was more important than the empirical data.
He also participated in an internship at a farm during his senior year. The cattle herd at the farm had a mortality rate of 2-3%. He realized that it was more effective economically and practically to implement a preventative solution, such as a change in nutrition, than a responsive solution, such as a veterinarian. He noted that this is similar to the way that medicine is adapting to the realization that “preventative is much better than responsive.” He decided to pursue a PhD in nutrition.
The connection between the brain and gut became important during a postdoc position. He was asked to take histological sections of a chicken’s intestine to compare the effects of two different diets on microvilli. When he saw the image, he “was captivated by it. By how beautiful the wall was. That’s where food becomes thought, where food becomes energy.” It was then that he began studying neurobiology as well. He saw two large benefits of studying neurobiology. Firstly, it has “been pushing the edge of science for the last fifteen years.” Secondly, “the brain is still a black box. How we think, imagine, dream is still a mystery.” His reading of ‘The Second Brain’ and ‘The Enteroendocrine System’ confirmed to him how little is known especially about the connection between the gut and brain.
This realization of an opportunity for research is a critical trait that Dr. Bohórquez values. “The people who are able to make progress in any field are those that have the ability to smell opportunity. Opportunity is an opening for making progress.” He saw that people were not studying the gut-brain connection from a ‘receptor-cell-nerve circuitry’ standpoint.
Beyond his research, Dr. Bohórquez reads and listens to audiobooks consistently. He feels that “communication is one of the biggest problems in science,” and not only can reading help to show how ideas are communicated, it can also provide context and therefore urgency for research. The jargon and density of scientific articles makes it difficult for both scientists and the public to understand what should be simple concepts to communicate.
Reading widely can also help to eliminate what he sees as the ‘lineage’ problem in science. Too often, people answer questions in a similar way to their mentors. This leads to an “inbreeding of knowledge” that limits a diversity of approaches and potentially limits available answers.
Understanding the context of research, through reading and experience, can also lead to an avoiding of “science for the sake of science.” Dr. Bohórquez worried about scientists who performed science without a goal in mind. While “in a world where resources were unlimited… you could do whatever you want with your time,” but “you have to have a purpose or you are wasting your time” when there are constraints on time and funding. He appreciates science with urgency, with a final goal.
The final subject that I discussed with Dr. Bohorquez was the way science is taught. He lamented that “unilateral teaching” failed to instill an imagination in students. The idea of questioning being a sign of disrespect just limits the benefit that a student can gain from a teacher. While “it is easier to lead without questions, it is not as effective.” Lessons should talk about the entire scope of a topic to engage the imagination of students. For example, teach the history and applications of genetics when learning the basics of the topic. Dr. Bohorquez wants to see knowledge be created, and he believes the recipe requires one-half knowledge and one-half imagination.