Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Thinking Beyond My Box

I never thought I was one of those broad-minded, general overview (electroman says, annoyingly "uber-objective") people, but last Thursday was certainly one of those shocker, "people really think this way" kind of days. Right now, I'm working in a cellular and molecular physiology lab. In fact, all three of my rotations are focusing on cellular and molecular physiology. It should be no surprise, therefore, that I would describe myself as interested in cellular and molecular level physiology. However, this isn't the only form of physiology out there; if physiology is the study of how the body works in its normal state, there are several levels at which you can look at the body. I would focus my research on how the body works as related to how the stuff in the cell and how a cell works. Systems physiologists, on the other hand, look at how the body works in relation to tissues, organs, and an intact animal (i.e., on a macroscopic, multicellular level). Recently, we started a unit in my physiology class that is being taught by my primary investigator (PI, the person I work for until mid to end November) and she's been encouraging us to get familiar with molecular techniques. What's a researcher who doesn't understand how to carry out the research? More than just being able to understand how the research is performed in a lab, an understanding of molecular physiology and the techniques used is necessary for a complete understanding of scientific papers and a critical reading of whether or not the conclusions drawn are valid. Not everyone does good science, and part of determining the prodigies from the phonies is to understand how the "tools" in our experimental "toolbox" are applied. But the disconnect is with some other students in the class. Many have worked mainly on the systems level, and a couple of them know that that's where they want to stay. And so, I've listened to the bitching over the last couple of days about having to learn molecular techniques. I'm of the mind that we should learn more, that we should even have a seminar on research techniques to help incoming students focus their own learning using the highly intelligent resources available to us. But, a fast poll of the class shows no one else is interested. The systems people actually started into a rant about how they would never need to know molecular techniques because they never would perform that kind of research. When I rebutted saying that knowing the techniques would help you read and understand other people's papers, one person said that they usually don't have time to read the whole paper, so they skip the materials and methods and only "read the answers". I don't understand how people can be so myopic. Not that I have all the answers, but I've tried very hard not to fall into the trap of getting tunnel vision. I think it's important, not just in science, but in every aspect of our lives, our opinions and our thoughts, that we think about the bigger picture. Just because I have a field of interest (be it molecular and cellular physiology, or asian american feminism and activism) doesn't mean that I should close my mind to the interests of others, even if they seem, superficially, to be irrelevant to my own body of work. Only by looking at problems in a macroscopic level can we see how our little microcosmos may be interacting with the world at large. How does the way I feel about exercise and food influence my feelings on student health insurance, which in turn might influence how I feel about being a student at large? The truth is that there is no isolated field of study, no little world that you can live in completely disconnected from every other. My fellow students and I must learn that the systems world and the molecular world are part of the same face of the same coin. And we all must be a little more aware of how we threaten to ignore molecular techniques in all aspects of our lives. (My apologies to anyone who waded into this post. I actually have been writing this post piecemeal over the last couple of days. My thought train has been derailed multiple times by various busy periods that crop up, so I'm not sure if I'm at all coherent anymore. As far as the update on this incident, my PI agrees and lectured yesterday morning about exactly how important it is to learn techniques that may not be part of our immediate research. More importantly, she emphasized that we are graduate students and are here to learn about all aspects of physiology. We need not be hand-held; we are expected to take the initiative and pursue the expansion of our own knowledge. I love my PI. She's so cool.)


Anonymous Rtother said...

Kind of off on a tangent of your post, but I think the whole "never stop learning, try to learn everything, etc." thing is a bit naive. I'm not accusing you of holding that mindset, but your post got me thinking about that.

I recently obtained my undergraduate degree, and I'm currently working at my first career. It's in my field, and well I think someone who passed teh 10th grade could do my job. A lot of the things I learned are useless when it comes to my job, and I will shortly forget them, less I take time and read of them again. Even when I move up into more complex things, the greater area of my college knowledge will still be useless.

I know that many things are connected, cause and effect, etc. However, one only has so much time in one's life. How much knowledge should a certain specialist have about different, somewhat related fields?

10/04/2005 07:21:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

I don't think it's good to have some sort of goal of learning in mind. Like the student who thought learning molecular techniques was all about what she could apply later in her research career, I think a lot of people (and I'm not accusing you of doing this) forget that learning should be about learning.

Perhaps this is naive, but I know that I don't get tired of learning, because I think the net goal should be about learning to understand the world around us, not necessarily through the rote memorization of facts, but as a way of thinking about our environment.

As someone who will eventually specialize most likely in channel behaviour in the cell (this is given the three rotations I'll be doing over the next year all of which have something to do with intercellular communication in some form or fashion) that doesn't mean that knowing something about the bones, the planets, or how a car runs is meaningless trivia (and these area bout disparate fields as I can come up with). Every organ system in the body employs similar techniques (signaling cascades, voltage/current etc...) and knowing something about the bones might help me identify a relationship between what I'm doing and what goes on in the bones. The same forces that apply to spin a planet around a star apply on the molecular level in a cell, and thinking about a car engine and how it works gives me a layman's model of how to present cellular machinery to a non-biologist.

So, in answer to your question, I don't think there is "too much knowledge" -- so long as you appreciate knowledge for knowledge's sake and don't stifle the curiousity that fuels a search for a better understanding. It's okay to be on a fool's quest for pure truth --I know I'll never know everything, but I think we're better people for trying.

(BTW, I was also in my first career after undergrad for two years. My job was also in my field ... more or less... and I did feel a lot of what I learned was not applicable to my position. That doesn't mean that what I learned was irrelevant and didn't have its own intrinsic value.)

10/04/2005 07:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First of all, you shouldn't have to appologize for the headiness of your post. You're a great writer and even one such as I who is without a degree can comprehend the point you were making. Essentially, I believe people have a tendancy to be lazy and may bitch and moan because they are not willing to open their minds and consider the details of something that may not apply to them. Face it. Not everybody likes learning as much as some people. It's a choice.

With that being said, I appreciate your complete report of the whole subject, especially the conclusion that "we need not be hand-held; we are expected to take the initiative and pursue the expansion of our own knowledge." That quote has the power to change a life.

I've completely stumbled upon your blogging site and let me just say that your writings are not in vain. You've reached me. Keep writing and try to get published.

J.V. in Cali

10/06/2005 04:01:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

j.v., thank you so much for your kind words! i felt this post was a little scattered -- i lost my train of thought too many times, but i'm glad you enjoyed it! :)

10/06/2005 06:42:00 PM  

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