Stories of incredible strength: mantis shrimp, trap-jaw ants, and Dr. Sheila Patek

I was struck by Dr. Sheila Patek’s talk about her scientific journey, particularly because she faced a completely unexpected challenge that wasn’t something I previously would have considered a roadblock for scientists: politics.  Dr. Patek’s research almost lost funding when it was identified by a senator as something that was an unnecessary use of taxpayer dollars.  Dr. Patek researches extreme movement in animals such as mantis shrimp and trap-jaw ants, which admittedly does sound like something that is not immediately necessary to move the field of science forward.  However, plenty of scientific research seems to be based on learning more about the world for the sake of learning more about the world, not learning for the sake of advancing technology or saving humanity.  Isn’t learning for the sake of learning what science is all about?  That’s what I thought before Dr. Patek told us about how her research was challenged for being unnecessary and how she was told that it was not worth the time or money that she poured into it.  I never considered that this would be a challenge for a researcher, someone who spends his/her life learning about the world.

Dr. Patek’s talk taught me three important lessons that I will remember as I grow as a scientist:

  1. Learning more about the world for the sake of learning more about the world is of the utmost importance. We should study everything, however seemingly insignificant and try to gain as great an understanding of our world as we can.  That’s our job as scientists.  If something gives me a greater understanding of some aspect of the world, it’s worth doing, even if I can’t immediately see the applications or the way that it advances society.  It doesn’t have to solve a human problem to be important.  The study of how mantis shrimp resolve conflict is just as important as the study of neuroscience, cancer biology, or evolution.  Just because one has more obvious implications for humans does not make it more important.
  2. That being said, all research has implications for humans. Although Dr. Patek’s research was challenged for its lack of relevance, she proved that it does have really important applications in engineering and technology and our understandings of evolution and physics.  Although these applications are not immediately obvious, they still exist and are of great importance.
  3. It’s important to stand up for ourselves and what we love and believe. When Dr. Patek was challenged, she did not sit idly by and lose funding.  She met with the senator on Capitol Hill to convince him that her research deserved funding, and she also spoke about the importance of research on PBS.  Dr. Patek’s bravery and perseverance in the face of adversity are truly inspiring to me, and the lesson I learned from her actions about standing up for knowledge and standing your ground is extremely relevant inside and outside of lab.

I highly recommend everyone watch Dr. Patek’s PBS Newshour segment.  She speaks so eloquently about why research is important for its own sake, and it’s a very inspiring message, especially for us as the next generation of researchers:

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