You’re a very special scientist

At what point did you decide you were a scientist?  Was it the first time you looked through the microscope, the first box of gloves you went through?  I think that more often than not it is a gentle gradient.  You keep doing experiments, failing, doing them again, and after a while, they work more than they fail.  You feel like you can do science, so you’re a scientist.

But science isn’t just about getting a specific protocol right, is it?

I think it is.

It is well-accepted that a fully-fledged scientist fills a very narrow niche.  One tiny lacunae in the large matrix of bone which is part of a massive SKELETON OF SCIENCE.  Sorry, I’ve been brushing up on my bone anatomy.

Which leads me to my point.  My PI, a man held in high regard in his field (the genetics of tuberous sclerosis complex, for those interested), is extremely reticent to dip his toe in bone biology.  A mouse model I’ve been working on has some interesting bone pathology, and we’re wondering whether or not to pursue it further.  His reticence stems from his lack of knowledge of the field.  But as a scientist, shouldn’t he be equipped to set up a rigorous, well-thought experiment, execute it, then carefully examine the results, regardless of subdiscipline?

No.

Bone biology is very specific, with it’s own particular lexicon of the esoteric.  One of the primary tools for bone biology, for example, is computer chromotography, or CT.  In hospitals, if you get a CT, it is taken by a radiologist – a person with a specific degree or certification to understand the minutiae that will yield your final results.  This radiologist has had years of training to comprehend his work – as a geneticist, this is not something you take on lightly.

When you learn about science, you learn about ideology.  You learn the rigor of the scientific method, experimental design, and statistical analysis.  You are taught that the experiment you set up should reflect the question you’re asking.  That is to say, if you want to set up an experiment using a model organism, the model organism you choose should depend on the experiment, not on previous use of said organism.  This is even emphasized in protocols for animal care and use.  But no one follows it.  If you work on drosophilia, you will continue to work with fruit flies.  Same with zebra fish, mice, etc.

My point is that scientists, while theoretically equipped to face any question with a variety of tools and techniques, become ingrained in their habits and techniques.  Personally, I think this is a good thing.  I want an expert, not a Jack-of-all-trades when it comes to pushing the bounds of human knowledge.

But this faces us with a dilemma when we approach problems.  As a geneticist, do I attempt to answer a question in bone biology, or do I let it slide? What is lost and what is gained?

Collaboration is the answer in most cases, but then your experiment becomes mired in the political mire of modern day science.

I don’t have an answer here.  These are just DNA Rambles.  What my gut tells me though, is that as scientists, we must constantly search for a new vantage point, a new way to look at something.  If that means leaving our comfort zone, our established field, then so be it.  Let’s return to the ideology.  Let’s learn, make mistakes, then try again.  Sure I like being a geneticist, but bone biologist sounds pretty sweet too.

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