Solving Puzzles in the Lab
Ben Ferguson -- When I get really, reeeeaaaally bored in the lab, I tend to gravitate toward crossword puzzles and sudoku to pass the time. When I was finishing up a sudoku puzzle in the local paper this weekend, it occurred to me that these games closely mirror the life of a researcher, especially that of a graduate student.
In one regard, the pace of both puzzles and research is similar. Easy puzzles are quickly conquered. There’s nothing difficult about them, and the going is straightforward and methodical. Tougher puzzles can be done with short bursts of focus with other things interspersed (such as taking a bite of lunch, finishing up a Western blot, or making a gel). The toughest puzzles require more time and attention, and they almost always require periodic guesses, retractions, and rerouting. When you’re stuck and looking for answers, it often helps to try another route or do something else altogether. Upon revisiting the problem with a different mindset and further expertise, the answer is often staring you right in the face.
Life in the lab is much the same. Easy experiments are done repeatedly and can eventually be done in your sleep. They are more a matter of muscle memory and basic arithmetic than actual brain power. More advanced experiments and protocols demand more of your attention and time, and they often are multifaceted and require a number of different methods to reach a desired outcome. Often, they must be optimized and redone several times to ensure that they work properly and that observed results are not artifactual. The most difficult experiments are not isolated experiments at all, but they are more a sequence of experiments, convergences with other lab members’ work, and integration of individual projects into a larger theme, such as, say, a graduate student’s thesis project or a principal investigator’s R01 grant application. Often, they don’t work at all, and there are a number of different ways to approach the questions that they seek to answer.
The flow of progress in science and puzzles is similar as well. In each case, you start with minimal knowledge and work up to completion (or, in the case of scientific research, you work until one project is finished, and then you start a set of follow-up experiments or another project entirely). With the addition of each solution, you have gained knowledge about the current scenario that assists you in some way. This continues until, near the end, everything logically falls into place, each new solution comes more easily and is largely an expected result, and answers again stare you in the face. There is a clear apex and subsequent denouement, and it feels so good. The stars align, the water divides, the puzzle pieces fall into place -- whatever you want to call it.
I’m reminded here of something the dean of our medical school often tells us: Medical school is a marathon, not a sprint. Clearly, I must be doing an ultramarathon or something, but when I am forced to take breaks in the lab, I can rest well knowing that I’ll be rejuvenated to tackle a particular problem when I return to it. Now, 9-letter word for “extra supply”…
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Posted by: Elaina | Mar 28, 2009 3:18:00 AM
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