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Personal, Uncategorized

When enough is enough


ImageI recently wrote this piece for the Nature Careers Columnist Competition – unfortunately I didn’t quite make the cut so here’s the would-be column – enjoy!

As research scientists, we are constantly faced with the same daunting question: do I have enough data? In the midst of gathering three long years of data to start writing my thesis, this question is no longer lurking at the back of my mind, an annoying but ignorable pest, but terrifyingly present in every waking moment. And some sleeping ones.

Research technology has gone leaps and bounds in recent years. Talking to senior postdocs around me, this quickly becomes apparent. While I chug through gigabytes of images deciding which ones are the best, my predecessors had to develop their own in a dark room. And don’t get them started on writing a thesis without a computer. Or their daily trips to the library to check the newest scientific publication. And although to the technological child that I am, this sounds like a momentous and tiresome task, it is true that, at least, less was expected of them.

Today’s academic world is always expectant of more. Why didn’t you try these drugs on your cells? Could you run a western blot alongside? One thing I have learnt is how to ward off the fear of not having done enough. There is always something extra that could have been done. One extra PCR that in the eyes of your examiner/reviewer/PI would have solved each and every problem in your research.

It is likewise difficult to do “novel” research. Although we are far from knowing everything there is to know in science, many great discoveries have already stolen our potential limelight. Some research areas are still ripe for the Nobel Prize picking (Theoretically Physics I’m looking at you), but I work in the field of Biology. I need to generate some serious data to even get a look in at a good publication, let alone the great heights of past generations.

It is important to remember, quantity is not quality. And regardless of what other scientists might throw your way, you know why you have chosen to run the experiments you have and not wasted time, energy and (of great importance to your PI) money. And you can choose to look at these discussions to get insight into ways to enhance your work. Maybe running that last little analysis would add weight to the rest of the data and is worth the trouble…

One thing that has not changed is the hours in a day. Sometimes, there simply isn’t time. You might relish showing off how late you can stay in the lab but at the end of the day (or night) you still need to sleep. And in a way, this can be worked to your advantage. Don’t cram all your data haphazardly into one paper in the hope of getting it into a better journal. It might tell two much more significant stories if allowed to breathe. It’s always nice to have the next bit of data up your sleeve.

On the bright side, these innovations, be they live cell imaging, synchrotrons or 3D printers, are allowing all of us researchers, everyday, the opportunity at greatness. All this amazing data is within our grasp. No longer do you need to be a computer wiz to do some genetic sequencing, or an expert photographer to capture a few slides. Each and every one of us could be on the cusp of the next breakthrough.

I have decided I have enough data. I might not be getting a cell line named after me any time soon but at least I’m in the running. Every bit of data I generate is new and innovative in it’s own way. And it will have to be enough. In the end it’s all about passion: if you are passionate enough to convince those around you your work is meaningful, you know you’re on your way. And why don’t you run this quick experiment while you’re convincing me?

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About me

Hi! My name is Natacha - I'm a research scientist and a lover of all things science! I love finding out interesting facts about all aspects of life, whether it's how genetic engineering works or what the difference between crimped and straight hair is. There's a bit of science behind every mystery and the Science Informant will help find the clues for everyone to enjoy and understand the amazing world of science!
Member Button linking to the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW) - an association of science writers, journalists, broadcasters and science-based communications professionals - many of whom are available for freelance work

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