Sometimes, I think that as scientists, we enjoy portraying an aura of complexity. Be it in describing what we do, what we say, or how we think. We like to present science as this complex phenomenon that could only be appreciated by the few who are worthy enough. Or have jumped through all the educational hoops. Try asking a graduate student to explain their research in layman’s terms and they struggle.
Inherently, Science; although I should probably narrow down my rant into what I study-Immunology; is quite simple. It is the host’s reaction to a something foreign. How is that mediated? A pre-existing response that we inherited from our ancestors, namely invertebrae, to a specific immune response that we inherited from our vertebrate ancestors, but was fine tuned to the insults we are more likely to face.
In our quest to understand the intricate details of what we study, sometimes we lose track of the bigger picture. For instance, a professor that I met was a leading expert (or only expert- nearly all articles in pubmed on the topic are from him) was interested in studying how HIV-1 RNA is packaged into the viral particle, and how reverse transcription occurs from said RNA in a newly infected cell. A worthy quest, I’ll admit. But so involved had he gotten with this subject of his, that he refused to acknowledge the work of other researchers in the field, nor the potential therapeutic implications of his work. He still sits now in his office, talking about GAG-POL interactions with tRNAlys3 that result in incorporation of this reverse transcriptase primer into virions. History of medicine suggests that people first started studying science to understand the wonders of the world. And while I definitely agree with this, I think that as People of the Lab Coat, we have reached a point in research where the needs of the many outweigh the curiosity of the few.
Changing track, I don’t see the point of unnecessarily complicated papers. By making a paper immensely hard to read, does it make the level of research that much more higher? Not really. Some of the easiest papers I’ve read have some great science in them. And then we wonder why, as scientists, we get a hard rap.
Science is inherently simple. All you need is a phenomenon (be it a pathway, a question, anything), some simple conditions to study it (in the presence of and the absence of) and the appropriate techniques that would help answer the question. Advances in science have shown us interactions that would take lifetimes to study. Conditions are not as simple as “have” and “remove” and see what happens. Studying, for instance, proteins involves western blots, immunofluorescence, immunohistochemistry, columns, animals models…a potentially infinite list. Theoretically, the conclusion from each of these should be comparable. Is it? Not really. I found, reading papers on respiratory syncytial virus surface proteins that for every paper that showed one conclusion, there was another paper that arrived at a different conclusion. The difference? Different mouse strains, different techniques for analysis…And what is the right answer? Well, depends on who you ask. Going back to the professor I mentioned earlier, a review for a class assignment that I submitted to him came back with a poor score; simply because I have equal importance to a model that contradicts his research. Another non-biased reviewer gave that assignment an excellent grade.
No, I m not bitter about the grade. I m here to learn. In any form or manner. What I’d like is consensus. An appreciation of the bigger picture. A reduction in egos involved. An appreciation of the natural world. In my opinion, biology is simply a study of interaction between two phenomenons. Host vs prey. Protein vs protein. Virus vs cell. The list is endless. Rather than bickering about the right way to study a pathway, creating new machines to do cooler things (i’d love to have a 64 colour flow cytometer. Do I need one? Err…) perhaps we should use the knowledge that we have, the knowledge that is yet to come to identify solutions to problems that still face the world.
Am I being naive? Most definitely. The business of science is far too removed from its initial goals of studying the world around you. Caught in this stream of madness, graduate students are simply pawns. Got an idea for the role of a protein in a pathway? Good. Now do a buttload of in vitro tests to show potential, then knock out the pathway in a mouse, then add it in, then if possible study it in human PBMCs…
And for heavens sake, what is the point of having 16 sub figures in one figure, and having 6 figures like that in a paper? Seriously, Nature? Seriously?