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Lifecycle of a Scientific Technique

Posted in: Fun Stuff
lifecycle science

Research laboratory techniques come and go now faster than ever. What is very cool today will not fly even in a thesis tomorrow. Recently, we wrote about caesium chloride gradients, “The Method” of DNA separation in the 1960s, now obsolete, and ethidium bromide, now on its way out into scientific history waste bin. This article provides an overview of the method lifecycle.

  1. You hear about it from a very cool guy from MIT at a conference. The technique A looks complicated, but the result is great. You want to try it, but your boss tells you to concentrate on those westerns.
  2. Somebody used it in Cambridge, England. Your boss is reviewing the manuscript and asks your opinion. You give a glowing review, but your boss is not so sure and points out in his (final) review that it is susceptible to artifacts.
  3. The lab next door starts using it. You discover that the postdoc positions you are interested in list the technique as optional in the job ad.
  4. You finally get the boss’s permission to use the technique. The job ads list it as essential. You put it on your CV.
    • Optional: A respected and prominent researcher gives a presentation in your Institute mentions the technique A as outdated nonsense and presents technique B. (Go to 1).
  5. Undergrads start using it in the lab for their project; in fact, you attracted them to choose the project by listing the method in the project description. However, the method requires so much optimization and general technical skill from the user that the student has no chance of getting any worthwhile results out of it. You show the undergrad how to do it once “as advertised.” She tries to repeat it and fails, deciding that a scientific career is not for her.
  6. Somebody publishes a paper proving that it is producing artifacts under certain conditions, including the one you are using. You tell your boss that you’d like to stop using it, but he pushes for results—as you spent a lot of time and grant money optimizing the method. The results are mentioned in your paper as “data not shown.”
  7. The technique has such a bad reputation that nobody, including you wants to use it.
  8. Nobody even remembers using it. People look at you disapprovingly when you try to tell the story of your struggles with the method and try to encourage them to use it when everything else fails.

P.S. I’ve been through the cycle happening for cloning into phage lambda (it’s in stage 7, I just caught stage 6), 2D gels (now at stage 6), microarrays (5), and LS-MS (4). What else can you add to this list?

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