It’s easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day of producing experimental results but as a scientist it is your job to do the exact opposite – a good scientist has to think about their work on all levels. Here is a light-hearted reminder of the importance of large scale, small scale, “out-of-the-box”, lateral and vocational thinking in science. Enjoy.
Large Scale: Things look different when you zoom out
Getting lost in your own train of thought is not difficult.
You decide to check the effect of a toxin on your cells, so you add 0.5 ml of a 1M concentration of the toxin, along with 5 ml of media. No dice. You ramp it up to 1 ml. Nada. Fine 2 ml. You really need some results to come together before that conference next month. Alright 5 ml,10 ml,15 ml,(die cells!),20 ml,30 ml,finally! You’ve killed them! Your toxin is quite obviously a danger to your cells.
Well that or a toxin to media ratio of 30:1 means that it’s pretty difficult for a cell to grab a quick bite to eat. Sure you’ll get some results â€“ but you may need to start your own journal to publish them. When you don’t make the conscious effort to zoom out once in a while, it’s pretty easy to lose track of the goal.
Small scale: Even your mentors have off days
Your supervisor sends you a seemingly hasty e-mail telling you that they won’t be around for a couple days, and asking if you wouldn’t mind ordering 100 of item # CA34-567 from the latest BuyBio catalogue. You look up item # CA34-567, and discover that it’s an ultracentrifuge. This does not seem peculiar to you, and you place the order. When your massive order arrives several weeks later, you and your supervisor have a painfully long chat. This could all have been avoided if you had actually used your brain, and noticed that item # CA34-568 is a pack of Eppendorf tubes (let’s ignore the fact that the supervisor could have been more clear in their e-mail, because let’s face it â€“ they are never wrong).
As much as your project may seem like the most riveting topic on Earth, you are likely the only one who gets to spend all day thinking about it. On any given day, your supervisor may have a moment of perceived brilliance, where they will try to send you off in a ground-breaking new direction that will finally provide the answers that you’ve all been searching for. You have no way of knowing whether this is the same day that they’ve been started on a new set of medications. Constantly reminding yourself of why you’re doing things will help to ensure that you don’t waste days, months or years of your life on a wild goose chase.
Out of the box: Donut enter?
A garbage man throws out your favorite lawn gnome, because it was too close to the curb. Your server puts chunky milk in your coffee, because it wasn’t supposed to expire for another two days. You aren’t allowed onto your flight because there are two L’s in Michelle on your passport, but there is only one on your ticket. That guy who writes all the signs in your building follows his superior’s poor handwriting a little too closely, and leads hundreds of other non-thinkers astray with his “Donut Enter’ sign. The moral of this story: Protocol isn’t everything.
Lateral: Job security in an era of robots
When they’re working properly, robots do exactly what you tell them, and much faster and precisely than you could ever hope to do it. So what good are you? In theory you’re the brain.
A machine can follow a protocol with the best of them, so to keep up with your robotic foes, you have to use the common sense that they don’t have. Constantly evaluating whether your data and procedure make sense in the context of the big picture will ensure your competitiveness in a technological age.
Vocational: Isn’t this why you got into science?
In an earlier article, Nick gave us 15 Reasons to be a Scientist. “Making quick and easy money’ and “Being able to space out for hours on end’, were not among those reasons. In theory, you have decided to join the world of science because you have some sort of interest in it.
Being a scientist is about more than about obtaining experimental results.
Being a scientist is about thinking, wondering, reasoning, evaluating, testing and comparing.
Be a scientist â€“ devote yourself to your purpose.