Tag Archives: RF2017-Week7

“Why do you do science?”

“To learn stuff…about the world.”

That was the first answer to Dr. Kathleen Donohue’s opening seminar question, given by yours truly. A soft round of chuckles rippled backwards through the seats of the classroom and I lowered my hand sheepishly. Okay, not my most eloquent response given that it was early morning (aka 9am) and I was still processing the much-needed sugar provided by some granola bars.  But still, that was basically the summary of the excited pull I felt in my gut when considering Dr. Donohue’s question. After all, learning new things about the world around us constitutes the very core of science, right?

However, as Dr. Donohue called on other BSURFers, people began giving answers like, “to find cures” or “to solve x problem in society.” Oops. I mean, those are really important too, but I’d be lying if I said they were the first things that came to mind. I felt slightly ashamed. Was I being selfish and, more importantly, impractical with my intentions in research?

It turns out, at a recent convention Dr. Donohue had asked several hundred evolutionary biologists the same question…and many of them had sided with pure curiosity. Dr. Donohue explained that whether you are in basic or applied sciences, it is vital to have the desire to learn things for the sake of learning things, because this is what motivates scientists on a daily basis. “You could be searching for the cure for cancer,” she said, but you’re not going to find it in a single day. Your curiosity and investment in your current tasks, even if what they reveal isn’t the game-changing discovery you ultimately hope to make, is what will carry you in the long run. In other words, pure curiosity is what sustains people who can work years and years on something, and then finally come up for a solution to an important problem. When I heard Dr. Donohue’s words, my shoulders relaxed in relief, and I felt a glimmer of happiness and hope. So I wasn’t going crazy: doing science simply to learn things about the world wasn’t such a bad thing.

However, Dr. Donohue also reminded us of the reality that, while curiosity may motivate scientists, practical applications are what interest most of society—including many funding organizations. So it’s really important to be able to communicate the value of your work to non-scientist contacts. That’s when Dr. Donohue said something that struck me: “whomever you are talking to is perfectly capable of understanding you, if you are perfectly capable of communicating to them.” Communicating science needs to be a dialogue: you need to know what the other party cares about, what they already know (or think they know), what their concerns are, and more. If you know this, you’ll know what to say and do in order to engage them in your work. This was good food for thought for me, because I’m interested in communicating science to the public but am sometimes unsure how to go about it. Understanding where the other party is coming from, and integrating these insights into how I explain science, is a tactic I’ll be keeping in the forefront of my mind from now on.

I know a major aspect of these faculty seminars is learning about each scientist’s specific research topics. But honestly, I think that Dr. Donohue’s more general discussion about the nature of scientific research and communication made one of the strongest impacts on me. It didn’t just reassure me that curiosity still plays a key role in driving science forward, but also acknowledged that the desire for practical solutions cannot be ignored and must also be satisfied. I think a good scientist has to be able to balance both of those motivations when doing research, and I hope that’s what I’ll be able to do in the future.

Piercing Alarms & Morning Meetings

7:50am… 8:00… 8:10… 8:20… 8:30… 8:35… These are all the alarms my roommate had to suffer through on a daily basis as I tried to convince myself to wake up for our morning faculty seminars. Although dragging myself out of bed and then rushing to get ready because I was running late (again) is not my idea of fun, the speakers made it worth it. Apart from learning about interesting research, it was reassuring to hear about the zigzagging career paths that many of the speakers had taken.

Two talks stood out in particular. The first was Provost Sally Kornbluth’s talk on research misconduct. I’ve grown up loving shows like CSI, Law & Order and White Collar, and the case study of Anil Potti, a former Duke medical researcher, sure felt like the academia version! Her talk also struck a chord because I’ve been thinking a lot about the failings of biomedical research after reading the book Rigor Mortis by Richard Harris (shout-out to Dr. Brian Hare for the recommendation). I’m not saying that basic science research is unnecessary—it has resulted in many life-changing (literally) discoveries. However, it isn’t perfect. The lack of severe repercussions for Anil Potti is a case in point (he is still a practicing doctor and will be allowed to conduct research again after 2020).

The second talk that caught my attention was that of Dean Stephen Nowicki who spoke about learning and mate selection in song birds. Having taken his class last semester, I knew some of the information but listened with newfound appreciation for the evolutionary perspective. It was especially fascinating to hear about his research on geographically comparing song repertoires between groups of male swamp sparrows. Song types varied between groups with groups farther away from each other being more distinct. Females tended to respond preferentially to males singing songs typical of their group with their responsiveness diminishing as songs from groups further away were played. This indicates that females’ notions of a ‘good song’ are learned through experience and exposure. Who would have guessed that songbirds are such an ideal species to study language and learning!

Moist Toilet Paper

Dr. Charles Gersbach wakes up each morning motivated and excited by the thought that he can discover something new and fresh with his passion and hard work.

He didn’t feel he could find such motivation through moist toilet paper, an idea proposed by Kimberly Clark, or through transfecting cells everyday to protect toddlers from RSV infections.

Of course, both moist toilet paper and cell transfections are important in their own ways, but Dr. Gersbach felt like he was simply “one little cog in a bigger machine.”

However, once he tasted the side of academia by experiencing a bone growth product, he found a new love and freedom for lab. His idea of what “engineering” meant shifted, especially for cutting edge research.

Now, Dr. Gersbach works with CRISPR and Genome Editing to decipher the dilemma of muscular dystrophy and attempts to differentiate between gene editing and gene therapy to capitalize, understand, and edit the dystrophin protein holding together muscle cells. As an aspiring engineer fascinated with CRISPR and genome editing myself, I was extremely interested in how he tackled the gene editing portion and how he found the balance between engineering and biology.

Dr. Gersbach fought a dilemma that I find myself facing; industry v.s. academia. His insight into how he felt with his experiences in industry versus the freedom he finds through academia proves extremely helpful as I attempt to figure out what I want from the future. Thank you Dr. Gersbach for a wonderful faculty talk!