Friday, March 7, 2014

Letters to a Young Scientist

I just finished reading Edward Wilson’s book Letters to a Young Scientist. (I know, I know….I don’t qualify as a young scientist anymore, but I can still enjoy the book.) Wilson is a leading biologist who established two fields of study: island biogeography and sociobiology. He is one of the world’s experts on the taxonomy of ants. In fact, last week’s blog post about the binomial nomenclature for naming animal species was motivated in part from reading this book. You can hardly get farther from physics than the taxonomy of ants, so this may seem like an odd topic to discuss in a blog about physics applied to medicine and biology. But the book considers universal themes common to all scientists.

What is Wilson’s main message for young scientists? He writes
“First and foremost, I urge you to stay on the path you’ve chosen, and to travel on it as far as you can. The world needs you—badly.”
How true. My favorite of Wilson’s letters was number seven, “Most Likely to Succeed.”
“Conventional wisdom holds that science of the future will be more and more the product of ‘teamthink,’ multiple minds put in close contact…But is groupthink the best way to create really new science? Risking heresy, I hereby dissent. I believe the creative process usually unfolds in a very different way. It arises and for a while germinates in a solitary brain. It commences as an idea and, equally important, the ambition of a single person who is prepared and strongly motivated to make discoveries in one domain of science or another. The successful innovator is favored by a fortunate combination of talent and circumstance… When prepared by education to conduct research, the most innovative scientists of my experience do so eagerly and with no prompting. The prefer to take first steps alone. They seek a problem to be solved, an important phenomenon previously overlooked, a cause-and-effect connection never imagined. An opportunity to be the first is their smell of blood.”
I also liked the point Wilson made in letter three, “The Path to Follow”.
“If a subject is already receiving a great deal of attention, if it has a glamorous aura, if its practitioners are prizewinners who receive large grants, stay away from that subject. Listen to the news coming from the current hubbub, learn how and why the subject became prominent, but in making your own long-term plans be aware it is already crowded with talented people….Take a subject instead that interests you and looks promising, and where established experts are not yet conspicuously competing with one another…You may feel lonely and insecure in your first endeavors, but all other things being equal, your best chance to make your mark and to experience the thrill of discovery will be there.”
He then states a general principle using a military metaphor.
“March away from the sound of the guns. Observe the fray from a distance, and while you are at it, consider making your own fray.”
He continues with an observation about big science.
“The sequencing of the human genome, the search for life on Mars, and the finding of the Higgs boson were each of profound importance for medicine, biology, and physics, respectively. Each required the work of thousands and cost billions. Each was worth all the trouble and expense. But on a far smaller scale, in fields and subjects less advanced, a small squad of researchers, even a single individual, can with effort devise an important experiment at relatively low cost.”
I agree with Wilson on all these points. I think there is a lot to be said for small groups. And I think that too often researchers chase the latest fad. I second Wilson’s advice to march away from the sound of the guns, and to make your own fray instead.

Often those applying physics to biology and medicine are skirmishers whose goal is to probe the unknown searching for vulnerabilities, rather than to join the mass attack. My suggestion is to first get a broad education in both physics and biology, perhaps using a book like the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology (you knew I would get the plug in somewhere), and then find some interesting but little-studied topic, and see where it leads you. And above all, have fun while you are doing it.

But don’t take my word for it. Read the book, or listen to Wilson give his advice to young scientists in his TED talk.

1 comment:

  1. Exposure to IPMD before medical school opened my eyes to worlds of interesting problems; and provided a toolset, and with it confidence, for gaining leverage on deep problems originating of my own imagination.

    Years later, now a clinical anesthesiologist, I am still independently driven by one such problem which germinated long ago while studying physics: how to safely, reversibly, block peripheral nerve conduction by a minimally invasive physical, i.e. non-pharmacologic, means.

    As per Wilson, my enduring ambition--sparked by IPMB, and kindled by Roth & Wikswo--is a problem intersecting physics and anesthesiology few people have noticed--one whose solution will profoundly change the delivery of healthcare.

    While I may not be the first to solve it, my thanks to the author and to the book for giving tools and real confidence that I just might.

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