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How close do you go?

On breadth versus depth in your scientific approach

Maria Teresa Esposito 25 July 2011

www.lablit.com/article/675

Fine focus: what's a good balance?

This was not just a simple crush, but a pure and faithful love for life. These researchers got married to a specific gene and never cheated on it

What does it take to make a good scientist?

Still no answer.

When I was an undergraduate student and then a PhD student, seeking inspiration about this question, I looked to other researchers and team leaders. Some of these people were completely focused on their own research. Not surprisingly, they had no life and no interests outside the lab, but quite amazingly, they equally had no interest in any of the other projects studied in the labs next door. They seemed to see no reason to attend other researchers’ talks, especially those unrelated to their own subjects. This was not just a simple crush, but a pure and faithful love for life. These researchers got married to a specific gene and never cheated on it.

But does science really demand this kind of loyalty? Does this loyalty make you a good scientist? If I wanted to pursue a career as scientist, I needed to find answers.

Scientists who spend their lives devoted to one gene can become specialists. And after working really hard, they may end up with excellent publications, which in the best-case scenario would allow them to master their field. They can earn respect from other scientists, make collaborations and receive invitations to conferences all over the world. Let’s not forget: this is the best-case scenario. You need to pick a good gene, maybe a “hot” gene already described in good publications that is full of promise, or an unknown one, risky but less competitive and with the potential for future development.

Yet this route doesn’t sound appealing enough. What’s missing? What about the wide and passionate interest in science, which should make us excited about every single discovery, even those far from our field?

Luckily, the Federico II University in Napoli, where I worked as PhD student, and then Imperial College London, where I went to complete my PhD studies, offered me exposure to a wide variety of scientists studying many different things. And I met people with a really broad interest in science. Keeping up-to-date on the latest science can easily cost you hours at your desk, reading every single paper published in your favourite journals. The scientists I met were always there at every talk, sharing all their knowledge and asking the most interesting questions.

Yet..

Too many hours spent at your desk can make you an interesting person to talk to, but can also keep you too far away from your lab bench. As a good scientist, you are supposed to generate lots of data and try to publish whatever you can in a reasonable time. No publications means no chance to stay in academia. By this logic, your wide and unconditional love for science could actually kill your academic scientific career.

I am a post-doctoral researcher now and I still do not have clear answers to my questions. Moving from gene therapy to regenerative medicine and eventually to cancer biology, I did not pick a single gene but decided to follow my interest in stem cells, which brought me to King’s College London. This subject appeals to me the most and I feel extremely lucky to work on something I am really passionate about. Even though I am not so loyal to stem cells, I am a book eater and maybe a “paper eater”. I like reading and thinking about a very wide range of scientific topics and check my favourite journals every week and every month to see what’s on. I would like to find more time for all the articles I collect on my desk and achieve a good balance between being a “data machine” and widening my scientific knowledge.

Maybe this is what a good scientist should be.