Brief reflections on lessons learned from encounters with outstanding scientists in graduate school
Now approaching the terminus of my time in graduate school, I can’t help but look back over these years and contemplate the most meaningful and memorable parts. Being a graduate student afforded me frequent opportunities to meet with a multitude of excellent visiting researchers, and a few of these encounters—whether over lunch, dinner or chatting after a seminar—left a lasting impression. Now, with graduation day at the doorstep, I wanted to chronicle these experiences for posterity—a distillate of the best advice I gathered from my encounters with some great scientists.
“See what isn’t there”
When Dr. Herschlag visited our department to give a seminar last year, one piece of advice he shared stood out to me. He began by outlining ways of approaching scientific research. Most common is the “Where’s Waldo” approach: you know that something is there, you just need to find it. This is not a bad strategy; in fact, it’s an important part of research, since it is responsible for filling in the “gaps” and details after a major breakthrough is made. It’s also the safer approach if you’re looking to get things published with a high degree of probability. But the big discoveries—the paradigm shifts—come from approaching science by what Dr. Herschlag called “seeing what isn’t there.” He explained this further by using an example from his own field, in which it was long thought that proteins were the only class of biological molecules with enzymatic function. Using the “Where’s Waldo” approach, an enzymologist might start by looking for a new protein with enzymatic functions, or by further studying one already known. But the “seeing what isn’t there” approach instead asks whether any other macromolecules could in fact possess enzymatic properties. Thinking in this way led to the monumental discovery that certain RNA molecules can also function as enzymes (the so-called “Ribozymes”). In short, it may be a higher risk approach, but when you try “seeing what isn’t there,” the payoff might just be a groundbreaking discovery.
Collaboration: more than just a buzzword
Earlier this semester, the graduate students in my department shared a lunch with Dr. Wes Van Voorhis. Naturally, whenever students converse with a visiting professor, the topic of the future of careers in science tends to arise. While the deficit in funding often dominates these talks, the conversation with Dr. Van Voorhis had a notably positive and practical tone. In sharing his experience and advice, he emphasized the importance of collaboration in science, something that is likely to only grow in importance going forward. While “collaboration” often feels like a nice-sounding but overused buzzword, Dr. Van Voorhis made the case that it is much more practical than that. For example, collaborative grant applications with multiple PIs trained in diverse fields and possessing different skillsets are more likely to be successful than submissions from a solitary lab. Similarly, manuscripts with multiple collaborators can help investigators publish in better journals than they otherwise could alone. Whether the collaboration is simply between two labs at the same institution, or a multi-partnership among several investigators at different domestic and international universities, bringing diversity to the group adds value in the eyes of funding agencies and journal editors.
“The difference between doing right and being right”
My third and final thought comes from a dinner meeting the graduate students shared with Dr. Gregory Petsko. Probing him for advice near the end of dinner, he paused, then remarked “there is a difference between doing right and being right.” Elaborating, Dr. Petsko drew on an example from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In a key scene of the story, Huck finds himself forced to decide whether to violate the law in order to protect a fugitive slave named Jim, whom he had recently befriended. When asked about the whereabouts of the runaway slave by local authorities, Huck faced an impasse: “I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it.” Growing up in the antebellum south, Huck had always been taught that concealing a fugitive slave was a grave sin: “…they’d a learnt you there that people that acts as I’d been acting…goes to everlasting fire.” And in his heart, Huck sincerely believed this to be true; he was convinced that turning in Jim was “doing right” by every moral standard he knew. But as he reflected on Jim—his kindness and friendship—Huck’s mind became clear: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.” He would protect Jim—even though he truly believed he would be condemned for it. Ultimately, being right didn’t matter if it meant he wouldn’t be doing right by betraying Jim.
In the empirical, data-driven world of lab research, there is naturally a hefty premium placed on being right in the science we practice and the evidence we report. However, in seeking to accurately describe our experimental findings, we are doing right as well as being right. In this case, as in many others, the two are overlapping. Dr. Petsko’s point was that just because doing right and being right are frequently one and the same, doesn’t mean they always have to be; making wise decisions requires us to recognize the instances when they are not.
Truly good advice isn’t easy to come by, and in the competitive world of science research today, it’s something young scientists in particular can use plenty of. I have found the lessons learned from these encounters to be well worth keeping in mind. By trying to “see what isn’t there,” and actively seeking to collaborate with others, we can all be better scientists. By always doing right in our interactions with others, even when it means not being right, we can also be better people.
Featured image: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1885. From Wikipedia commons. Obtained via google images under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license
Embedded image: A Where’s Waldo visual puzzle. How good are your eyes? From Flickr. Obtained via google images under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license
Daniel Herschlag Faculty Webpage. Stanford University Website
Kruger, et al (1982) Self-splicing RNA: autoexcision and autocyclization of the ribosomal RNA intervening sequence of Tetrahymena. Cell 31(1):147-57.
Wes Van Voorhis Faculty Webpage. University of Washington Website
Steven Eastlack (March, 2017). How Scarce Funding Shapes Young Scientists
Daniel Mediati (April, 2017). Science is the name but collaboration is the game
NIH Grants and Funding Website. Multiple Principal Investigators
Chris Tachibana (September, 2013). Navigating collaborative grant research
Dr. Gregory Petsko Faculty Webpage. Weill Cornell Medical College Website
Mark Twain (1884). The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Accessed online, April 23, 2018.