Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Let's go all the way with research.

So, I have been involved in research for nearly 15 years now. I have read and written a lot of papers. I have been to a lot of conferences, and I have attended countless seminars. Today, I want to challenge each of you to take your research beyond the easy paper and go all the way. What do I mean by this? Well, our group has been doing cancer research (mostly brain) for the last 3-4 years. We have focused primarily on the "easy" papers. I throw some materials/drugs at some cells, look at how they respond, and write a nice paper summarizing my results. The cells are probably transformed cells, not real patient cells, so who knows how well this research would translate into the clinic, and honestly probably don't care just want that next paper to put on my CV.

I met with my lab a few days ago and told them that this is bulls**t. I don't want to do easy research anymore. I want to go all the way. I want to do the hard research, the stuff that takes years, that no one wants to touch because they don't even know where to begin, the stuff that matters. Let's take an example. OK. So let's say we publish a paper that says material X causes tumor cells to migrate faster. I can publish that paper. I can build a whole career on papers exactly like that, but what I have I actually done to make cancer better? Jack squat! Now, what if after observing that material X has this property, I publish a follow-up paper identifying factor Z as the main reason that the cells move faster. Then examine what parts of the cell specifically interact with factor Z, identify which genes/proteins are involved in those interactions, and try to find drug targets to block them? The latter is a lot harder, but that is the work that truly matters.

We are going to start doing the hard work that really matters. I challenge you to do the same.

12 Comments:

At 1:01 PM , Blogger JaneB said...

Ah, but who pays? In non-medical science at least, what my group does is largely controlled by meeting the requirements of the grants that pay our way, and getting grants to do 'the hard stuff' is, well, hard... I think I DO do hard stuff, and that's why I struggle to get funding (or is that just a nice excuse?)

 
At 2:56 PM , Blogger Janus Professor said...

maybe the hard stuff would pay off in the future via patents that get licensed? i'm still struggling with the broader concepts.

 
At 2:57 PM , Anonymous Yael said...

My advisor does that and sometimes I think his ideas are crazy, students take 7 years to graduate (I'm defending soon, also in my 7th year) but we all got a ton out of it, as seen by where lab alumni go to...I loved my time doing crazy stuff in my advisor's lab.

 
At 3:15 PM , Blogger KBHC said...

Thanks for writing this! Grants have wiggle room (not that I have any yet) so I don't know that that's the best reason to not do science that matters.

When I started my t-t job in 2008, I started doing what I felt like doing, what I felt like would make the most impact. We'll see in a few years whether it has paid off or not.

 
At 4:00 PM , OpenID philosophyfactory said...

Good for you!!! There's nothing like a life challenge to kick the rest of things into gear!! I know I became more focused on finishing my dissertation after my diagnosis --and I really wanted to do something that would have a lasting impact.

 
At 9:23 PM , Blogger Erin said...

Would you suggest taking this approach pre-tenure, or is it a better idea to play it safe until tenure is secured?

 
At 4:17 PM , Blogger PhD Mom said...

To be honest, I don't think I would recommend this pre-tenure, but not because of what you might think. The main reason is that you probably wouldn't have any projects advanced enough that that is even an option. You have to start at a basic level before you can get to depth.

 
At 11:42 AM , Blogger ScienceMom said...

You will get the work done and the papers will be wonderful! Just make sure you double check your results before moving on. Look at things from different angles. Have different students work on the same problem using different approaches. Make sure you get the same answer from every approach, because each step along the way will depend heavily on the previous results. It's very easy to make assumptions and not realize that you've done so.

If you're worried about funding, try setting up parallel related projects under different grants. If you lose one funding stream, you still have the other.

 
At 7:01 PM , Anonymous PrionGirl said...

I completely agree. Mind you, I am only 2 years into my career, and don't have any papers yet, in part because I am doing what I think is "cool" and more relevant, which also takes longer. If only we could alter this "publish or perish" attitude and replace it with "quality not quantity". I don't want to be known for publishing hundreds of papers in Joe's journal (No offense Joe). Maybe you can relate to some of my own lab growing pains in my blog PrionGirl.blotspot.com or my tweets as PrionGirl...

 
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