A researcher’s dilemma

I have been struggling with this problem for quite some time. The more I work in research, the less I science I actually know. A friend of mine, who is a bioinformatician, used to tell me that we’re just lab monkeys who are producing the data they can work with. Even though he was clearly wrong (he is a data monkey, after all, and not a supreme being above us, wet-lab scientists), he does have a sliver of truth.

When I was an undergrad, and later a Master’s student, I knew biology. I was familiar with the anatomy of most of the animal kingdom having dissected representative species. I knew all the animals and plants in Central Europe by latin name as well as basic information about their habitat, life cycle and other interesting stuff. Now I can identify Allium flavum with certainty. I knew the metabolic pathways in cells, I was familiar with how different types of bacteria work (and hated all the different molecular pathways), knew about genetics, plant physiology, evolutionary theory, and all that jazz. Not perfectly, but I could have talked my way out of an exam should need had arisen. And it did. We had oral exams.

Now I have a PhD before my name, and I realized I have no idea how the Szentgyorgyi-Krebs cycle looks like. (Yes, it’s Szentgyorgyi-Krebs, if you wanna know.) I’m doing my stuff in the lab, trying to get data, trying to have results, but I feel less and less like a scientist. Ironic, isn’t it? When I actually knew stuff, I was but an MSc -not someone who can call himself a scientist; now I’m a postdoctoral researcher, and pulling a Jon Snow. I lost all knowledge that has no connection to my field. And I don’t even know my own field that well. I don’t even know what my field is. I’m not a molecular biologist, because even though I do molecular biology, it’s just a tool for me. (And f#cking HATE cloning.) I’m not a virologist, because even though I use and study viruses, I have no training in virology, and it’s not my main focus; I am investigating how the virus and the host cell interact. I’m not an immunologist, either, even though it’s on my MSc diploma. When I studied immunology, there were but two T helper cells. Now there’s about 20. And I don’t know what either of them does.

It’s easy to get into the routine of the labwork, and not think about the world around you. I realized there is a problem when I started to write popular science articles, and had to read the source publications, do some research in order to be able to explain the results in plain language. I was reading about Ebola, about microRNA and epigenetics, about the genomics of the pepper, and found that I know I used to know all this thing, but not any more. More importantly felt like a biologist again. I really can’t care less about the minute details of a minute part of a research field. I want to know everything – even if it means the knowledge is not complete. What I noticed is that most researchers are the same: only know about their field, and are hopelessly outclassed when they have to discuss something else. Heck, some of them can’t even calculate basic dilutions without internet applications. The term “scientist” should be a term reserved for the truly gifted (and insane) people among us: to those who are willing to spend all their waking hours contemplating their research, and cannot imagine than anything could be more fun for a Friday evening than to catch up with the scientific literature. The truth is most of us are just craftsmen applying tools to a problem to get an answer to a given question. I don’t know how the “renaissance men” scientists do it, but I don’t think I can be like them.

I think I should be changing directions soon.


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