Research by the day

In this place, every week is Research Week.

May is always an exciting month for graduate students because it is in May that OHSU Research Week annually falls. The modern manifestation of what was once called the Student Research Forum, Research Week is a time to see what other people on campus are doing, learn new things, lend support to fellow students participating in the 3 Minute Thesis, and hear from interesting keynote speakers. Despite my excitement for it my first and second year, I am a little embarrassed to admit that I approached this year with apathy. I made  a poster, I had a list of workshops I wanted to attend, speakers I wanted to see, but I felt settled – my project is running and experiments are competing for my attention. Was it really worth hiking all the way up from School of Dentistry just to see some poster topics with which my own has nothing in common?

But tomorrow is, of course, another day, and Tuesday proved a big one indeed. Student Day has been a favorite of mine every year because it is the day by students, for students. On a campus where the graduate student population is a dispersed force, Student Day has had a unifying effect in the past. This year, I was honored to eat with and introduce the Student Day Keynote Jeff Lichtman, PhD MD.  Lichtman is a pioneer of the emerging field called Connectomics, the study of comprehensive maps of connections within an organism’s nervous system. He is an innovator and one of the most approachable scientists I have ever met. I first saw him speak at Cold Spring Harbor, where he politely told the students in the Drosophila Neurobiology class that our research was pointless, that the invertebrate systems are done. A blazing example of scientific snobbery? One could argue so. An oversight of the fact that approximately 70% of proteins associated with disease have functional homologs in Drosophila? Glaringly so. An opinion akin to the cavemen saying “This wheel thing? Like that will ever be useful!” Truly so.

[Fun fact: gleevec, the drug used to treat chronic myelogenous leukemia, targets a receptor tyrosine kinase that was first identified in Drosophila.]

But, as is the case with true innovators, incredible insight often lurks around otherwise polarizing corners. During lunch, I asked Lichtman a relatively average question about mentorship and how to make post graduate school career choices, i.e. decisions about post doctoral fellowships. What I got was a blazingly obvious, yet incredibly insightful answer. He responded that the most important thing for a young scientist to develop, and use in their decision making, is a manifesto of their scientific philosophy, interests, and actions. We, as graduate students, need a science philosophy, a story that reads “We knew this, but we did not know this, and why didn’t we know this? Well, because no one ever thought to do that. Or maybe they did think to do that, but they didn’t have the technology to do that, and now I do, so therefore I did that. But then I got these questions from that, and so I had to go here to answer these questions….” A scientific story so necessary, one that all the good, successful scientists tell at the seminar lunches, yet the development of which is overlooked by young career scientists.

In a world where uncertainties about funding are seemingly forever growing while the areas of science holding public interest are being pruned away, it is easy for graduate students to shrug their shoulders and say “Well, I’ll see what the economy is like when I get close to graduating and then I’ll start making real career decisions” when asked what their plans might be. But Lichtman, and other scientists with whom I have spoken, seem to suggest this attitude is completely wrong. We are cutting ourselves off at the knees when we succumb to such apathy. This attitude is perpetuating the decrease in research deemed important and the loss of a generation of trained scientists. It is perpetuating the idea that one area of scientific research deserves more time and resources than another area of research. It is events like Research Week, which promote interdisciplinary science and collaboration, that reaffirm all sub-disciplines, be it physiology, cancer, or genetics, are dependent upon each other in the great unfinished tome of Science. Research Week is where students should be actively sharing and developing their science philosophies. I was incredibly wrong to approach it with indifference.

Indeed, Tuesday was a big day and I approached Wednesday and Thursday with less apathy. There were truly high points of the week – besides Lichtman’s great talk on Tuesday, on Wednesday, the 3 Minute Thesis was a nail-biter and I give massive kudos to the participants, the receptions were great times to catch up with classmates, the career panelists were insightful, and the Ugly Data Competition is by far one of the coolest things because, as we all know, sometimes it happens! I showed my poster, I saw a few workshops. But I must say, the spirit of Research Week that so invigorated me my first and second years, felt a bit lacking. It felt swollen, perhaps a bit lethargic and, dare I say, tired? The poster sessions felt segregated and there was very little cross-disciplinary action. I had a few visitors to my poster, but they were all people I know apart from the judges, none of whom were PI’s. A sense of academia, a sense of teaching and learning and interdisciplinary action was lacking.

Research Week is too important an event on campus to be attached to any form of apathy from the student or faculty body. Every week, every day, is research week in the life of a graduate student at OHSU. But Research Week is where we teach each other, where we learn the significance of all the research happening on campus and where our own fits in the great scheme of science. Research Week is a time dedicated to sharing, questioning, and learning each other’s work. It is where students should start expressing their own science manifestos. Research Week should be, in reality, as John Harkness told me, treated with all the auspices of a conference. It is not a science fair, it is not to be taken for granted, and everyone should participate. I cannot wait until next year and I hope all faculty and students will participate with renewed interest and realization that this week should be celebrated.

3 responses to “Research by the day

  1. I am only a freshmen at Portland State University but I stumbled upon this blog post, I think research week should be celebrated. We too are doing three minute thesis presentations, they are very exciting!

  2. I completely agree that RW hasn’t felt as exciting as it should have – granted, I’m a third year graduate student and have hit the grad school science “slump” so perhaps my opinions are unnecessarily skewed. Despite my own sense of apathy for science and life, this year’s RW had some great moments – the networking night, for instance, was a huge hit on campus and really got students thinking about their future careers. I think similar events would really encourage more faculty/alumni to get involved and jumpstart students’ hope for their futures post-grad school!

  3. A thing like an “own scientific story” sounds good on paper (and I am sure, Lichtman means it and would be the mentor to see to it his students get all the support they need to make it a reality), however, as Max Planck remarked, scientific theories gain credence less by persuading the incumbents but when these begin to die out. At age 23 he played table tennis once with some fellow students and looked at his watch startled, saying “Oh I have to go to this lecture”. His fellow students said “C’mon, skip the lecture, this is a beautiful day”. To which he replied: “You can skip a lecture, but I can’t – I am HOLDING it”. When he discovered osmosis and held a demonstration about it an elder faculty member said: “You’re telling me, young man, there are three thousand atmospheres of pressure in that test tube – then why doesn’t explode – that must be rubbish”. Obviously Planck wasn’t fazed. However, it takes a lot of courage to stand up against elder incumbents in a scientific community (plus, as always, one might really just be wrong and have goofed the results, does happen at any level of seniority) and few professors, to my knowledge, truly encourage this maverick style Lichtman advocates.

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