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The Dual Nature of the Research Enterprise


One major goal of the research enterprise is the generation of new scientific knowledge, which assumes that we are training researchers to perform innovative scientific experiments in ways that advances their field, while also doing it in a manner that is both ethical and reproducible. 

I can think back to my days at the bench, when I often wondered: “Am I doing the right experiment?”; “Would others be able to reproduce my results?”; “(Why) would anyone read my paper?”; “Will this work I am doing be able to help another person?” Many PhD candidates and early career researchers face these questions during their training. I therefore appreciated the guidance provided by my PhD advisor in all of these areas, including in teaching me how to write and present my science in a talk. All of these aspects point to the importance of performing rigorous research, because others will build upon these findings to build their own careers. This is in large part why we must remember our responsibility to leave a scientific legacy behind for future generations.

In addition to doing research in the best way possible showcasing our findings in a clear light, we wouldn’t be able to drive this work at the bench day in and day out without a work environment that fosters the creative spark and perseverance needed to push through when things are tough. This is why it is important to build a positive and supportive research environment within the laboratory, as well as within a given university department which can provide additional resources and mentors. I can think back again to my graduate school days when we would celebrate not only large victories, such as a publication acceptance, but also personal accomplishments- such as when I got my U.S. citizenship, and my advisor put American flags inside strawberries and it looked so nice. 

I also remember celebrating many birthdays while I was there, and decorating our lab doors with Christmas garland of various colors. Christmas was also always a fun time due to the ever-present Secret Santa gift exchange that would always go on in the laboratory during the month of December. In addition, our group almost always won the Halloween costume competition in the department, and this was a competition that everyone took very seriously. It’s interesting that now, after having left academia, the things I remember are not the experiments that I did or what I published, but the memories around that when I really connected with people in the laboratory. 

This example illustrates very well the need to not only develop the professional skills of an early career researcher enabling them to be successful at the bench and in their subsequent careers, but also the importance of building an environment in which they will thrive in a personal sense. That is the dual nature of the research enterprise, in which developing the researchers who will carry it forward requires both experimental support and attention to the environment where the work is being done. Keeping a positive work environment will always encourage people to work harder and hopefully be happier while accomplishing common goals for the team. 

While the professional skills learned during the PhD are invaluable for career success in many areas (even if non-academic), the ability of researchers to thrive while building their careers depends on many seemingly small things that make up a positive work environment. It’s likely, therefore, that, once we leave a workplace, we might remember the personal interactions we have built and what those meant to us, and less so our experiments.


This post represents my personal views and not the views of my employer (University of California).


Featured Image: Two paths diverge. The image belongs to the flickr account of Joe Thorne and is used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license

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