Just a small introspective post today; something to consider with the upcoming holiday. What I’ve been focusing on for the past year is trying to develop independence in my scientific pursuits. Our goal as scientists in academia should be to create new ideas and to help them grow. How do we learn how to do that and, moreover, how do we learn to teach that to others? If there’s any advice I could give to you at this point about the topic it would be that I feel it’s a process like developing maturity, and that it comes in three parts or phases.
When first starting out in science you’re like a child; people tell you what to do, what experiments to run, and what to think. This would be starting out researching in college as an undergraduate student or even in high school. I am a huge proponent of students of any age conducting research. You have to start out with, as I’ve said before, the fundamentals of how to ask questions, how to develop a hypothesis. Even if someone tells you what area to look into or what ideas to pursue you need to be able to learn how to form those ideas into statements that can be falsifiable; can they be answered with a “true or false”. This gets us down to the very basics of how we can truly “know” anything. You have to become familiar with working within other people’s theoretical frameworks, their ideas, before you can even start to create your own.
I feel that I’ve progressed through the first part the scientific maturation process and that I’m just finishing up the second: developing your own ideas. In graduate school and as a postdoc you get a chance to develop your own project as you see fit. Yes, it will be constrained by the funding you are able to get from your PI (Principal Investigator) or the focus of your PI’s lab. For the most part, however, you’ll be the one creating the questions, making the hypothesis, and figuring out how it all fits together. Once you’re at this stage, every experiment that you conduct and every hypothesis you test should lead to a new question until you are satisfied with the theory you’ve developed. That’s not to say that you’re done or that you can’t make changes to your theory. Part of becoming a mature scientist, however, is to understand when your work has progressed to the point that you can share it with the general scientific community, e.g. publish it. You hope, and perhaps pray, that the work you’ve done, the ideas you’ve developed into theories, become useful not only for scientists but for the everyday public as well.
Finally, the last phase, I think, has to be developing the ability to guide other scientists in becoming scientifically independent. I think a lot of the grief that PI’s get comes from the fact that some may have forgotten their roles as educators. We should strive, as scientists, to get to the point where we can help other scientists understand how to work within theories and then to develop their own. I don’t want to run a lab because I want to become famous or because I want tons of grant money (though both would be nice). I want to have a group of students that I can discuss ideas with, and that I can help become independent scientists in their own right. It’s difficult, and I’m not sure I know exactly how to do this yet. It seems to me, right now, like something that just comes with experience. If my theory about it is correct; I’ll be continuing to look for that experience!
Thanks for reading, have a good July 4th!