Debbie Knight

Research may look “easy”…

In observation on May 14, 2011 at 5:21 pm

This image was taken from the "Electron Cafe" blogsite, posted by Paul Vallett.

A Facebook friend of mine posted a link to the above image yesterday. She’s a graduate student studying malaria at The Ohio State University. And she’s discovering exactly how science works in reality.

While I can’t speak for everyone in the research community, I know that I originally thought that research moved relatively easily and directly from question to answer. Hey, it worked that way in the controlled environment of my college biology and chemistry lab classes — wasn’t that just a taste of what science was really like in the real world?  I was in for a rude awakening!

When I volunteered in an environmental microbiology research lab at Purdue University, way back when cave men were crawling out of their caves — okay, so it wasn’t that far back, but it certainly seems a lifetime ago — anyway, when I volunteered to work in a research lab, I naively thought that’s how science worked: you ask a question, do the experiment and voila! you have the answer you expected, end of story.

I quickly discovered that research is more about trying to figure out why an experiment gave an unexpected result.

Even after years of research experience, I spend a considerable amount of time in the “head scratching / thinking phase” of the experiment. I often call this the “bang head here” phase — luckily, I have a rather hard head.

I’ve found over the years that the tiniest detail can have an enormous effect on the outcome of an experiment — tiny details like adding reagent A after adding reagent B might give an entirely different result than adding reagent A before reagent B.

Research is not for the faint of heart.

An experiment that doesn’t work or gives an unexpected result can give just as much information as an experiment that works as expected if the investigator is wiling to put on his or her “detective hat” and figure out why. Sometimes it requires a minor tweak and the experiment works gloriously. Other times, those unexpected results can lead the researcher to a completely different set of questions to be asked and perhaps to a completely new discovery in the scientific community. And sometimes, you just have to scrap everything and go back to the proverbial drawing board.

The bottom line: research may look easy on paper (especially when you read a news story or, if you’re up for the challenge, you read the original scientific journal article), but the reality is those research findings took a whole lot of blood, sweat, and tears (literally) on the part of some student, research associate, post-doctoral researcher, or professor (or a combination thereof) and a whole lot of unexpected experimental results to make it look “easy.”


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