The Tough Questions of Research

Complex questions never have one simple answer. Similarly, the hardest questions never offer the most satisfying answers. Reflecting on my conversation with my PI, Dr. Mooney, I realized this remains true for many questions in the field of research. We spent brief moments discussing the typical “interview” questions: how he received his PhD in Biology from CalTech or how his interest in music and science intersected in the field of neuroscience. 

The majority of our talk, however, was centered around the more complicated questions of research – questions that I believe to have multiple and possibly conflicting answers. A topic that arose in our conversation was related to the pursuit of a research project. Often, science can be unforgiving: experiments fail or data does not reflect a desired conclusion. How do you determine when to move on from a project? At what point do you determine that it is time for a new idea? Dr. Mooney, who acknowledges his tenacity and ability to commit himself to ideas and projects, explained that these are existential questions that researchers constantly grapple with. There isn’t a set “threshold” or set of criteria that scientists can refer to when considering the viability of their projects. He explained that it requires considering the unique factors of that situation – weighing the pros and cons of continuing, or not continuing, a research idea. 

We also discussed the ethics of research. Specifically, how do we as scientists grapple with the ethics and implications of animal research? Dr. Mooney explained that this is one of the most fundamental and challenging questions of research – a question that he finds himself pondering more and more as he moves further in his career. Animals, as he believes, are valuable for their own sake. Each has a unique way of sensing and perceiving the world around them – a fact that makes them valuable in themselves. Yet, he also acknowledges their value in terms of research and better understanding the human condition. Specifically in the field of neuroscience, a general organizational principle, one that is conserved throughout life on Earth, has yet to be discovered. There are simply too many fundamental questions about the brain that have not been answered. Many aspects of terrible diseases and disorders, such as Alzehiemers and schizophrenia, are poorly understood. As scientists, there is almost an obligation to answer these questions – an obligation that necessitates the use of animals. In summation, Dr. Mooney explained that the most important quality researchers must have in animal research is mindfulness. We must always consider the implications and gravity of using animals in our studies. What we must be wary of is dismissiveness – the lack of thought or consideration about the privilege that comes with being able to conduct this form of research.

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