I Love Science!

Like a preschooler, a scientist never stops asking “why?”

Every scientist dreams of a discovery so monumental that it earns him or her the Nobel Prize. I feel my chances have increased after recently reading The Beginner’s Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize by Peter Doherty. He was recognized in 1996 for co-discovering how the immune system checks for viruses hiding inside cells. In his short, witty book for a broad audience, he describes scientists, the culture of science, how societies support science, and how scientists can better society.

Doherty defines a good scientist as one who is curious, industrious, honest, and somewhat skeptical of authority. Like a preschooler, a scientist never stops asking “why?” My passion for evolutionary science stems from its capacity to lend answers to “why?” questions in medicine.

Scientists can generally be classified into two camps: observers and theoreticians. Observers collect and analyze information, while theoreticians try to tell us what the data mean. Theoreticians tend to be glorified, as review articles are usually cited more frequently than original research (in science the number of times others cite your work is a way to measure your influence), but it is the observers that actually drive the field. Nobel Prizes are typically awarded to observers unless a theory is particularly powerful at predicting future observations.

Doherty does his best to dispel the stereotype of how scientists are depicted on screen. He notes that young people could be more interested in a scientific career if they knew what fun we are! I have bore witness to some true party animals at national conferences… However, he does lament the frequent lack of communication skills. One of his guidelines for winning a Nobel is to learn to write clearly and concisely. I contribute to this blog in order to become a better ambassador of science, one that is articulate, accurate, and interesting.

Unlike many of the famous scientists from previous centuries that worked solo, most research is done collaboratively now. As in the business sector, your team’s performance depends on playing to the strengths of each member and working with the right people.

During my first research experience in a biology laboratory, I came in one morning to find something odd about my cells in the Petri dish. I asked my supervisor what she thought. She glanced into the microscope, pulled away, picked up the dish, held it in front of me and asked, “Brandon, how did one of your hairs get into a sterile environment?!” Stories like this have helped me to recognize that the lab is not for me. I am a bit of a hazard there. I value others who can do that type of work well. I look forward to writing successful grants in order to pay them handsomely!

Doherty encourages budding scientists to surround themselves with stimulating colleagues. As I look to the future, I imagine finding a scientific home full of brilliance, but balanced with a reasonable work culture. Prestigious institutions have a reputation of being toxically competitive.

Of the wide array of scientific activities, I most enjoy understanding a dataset, discussing what question is most important, and applying the proper statistics. Hours fly by when they are spent organizing a database, building variables, constructing models, and designing graphs, especially with the right music (Sigur Ròs, Taylor Swift, et cetera). I also find sharing our observations in text, picture, and orally very rewarding.

I lean more toward being an aforementioned theoretician than observer. With my unique background (there are not an overwhelming number of medically-trained nutrition scientists with a passion for evolutionary biology), I can often offer a fresh perspective. I grew up believing that I was not creative, because I was good at math and did not excel in art class. In college, I remember telling myself that I was not creative in the classic sense, but I was good at connecting ideas that had not before been linked. In part thanks to The Midnight Disease by Alice Weaver Flaherty, I now recognize that that is creativity. Albert Szent-Györgyi, who discovered vitamin C and parts of the citric acid cycle (our fundamental metabolic pathway that connects fat, carbohydrate, and protein), once said, “Discovery is seeing what everybody else has seen, and thinking what nobody else has thought.”

I foresee that my biggest challenge in science will be to pick the right question. Doherty stresses that it’s best to focus and not be a dilettante. I have dabbled in many fields. In the past decade, I have researched: 

(a) ringed, sulfur-containing molecules for drug discovery,
(b) how aspects of our modern lifestyle contribute to depression being more common now,
(c) how kidney cells react to a potent vasoconstrictor that our body naturally produces,
(d) how early fetal development may influence risk of alcoholism in females,
(e) how the types of fat women consume are related to their chance of developing breast cancer,
(f) how timing (before vs. after menopause) may influence the effect of diet on breast cancer risk,
(g) the effects of high-dose omega-3 fatty acid supplementation in women with a high risk of breast cancer,
(h) why economically disadvantaged women are more susceptible to the most lethal type of breast cancer,
(i) how much medical schools teach about evolution, and
(j) how to characterize the diets of preschool children in the Kansas City metropolitan area. I have hopped around as a consequence of my diverse interests and a knack for seizing opportunities.
However, I have come to realize that saying “yes” to things now necessarily means saying “no” to future opportunities.

In a world flooded with choice, time becomes the most valuable commodity. We must force-rank. Doherty points out that Nobel Prize winners often set out to solve major problems. Right now, I am most seriously considering dedicating myself to understanding (a) how best to improve the quality and quantity of life for individuals (and their family) grappling with a diagnosis of cancer, (b) why autism is more common now, or (c) how best to treat and prevent behavior that causes personal, family, and social strife, namely addiction and crime.  

Doherty devotes a great deal of effort toward defining the characteristics of cultures that embrace science. He supports public radio and television. Love it. Science-friendly societies value public education. Although it appears that our country values education by the amount of money we spend on it, our outcomes lag behind other comparable Western nations. Unfortunately, the same is true also of our healthcare system. On a positive note, Doherty praises our funding structure for biomedical research; he cites the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as the single greatest reason that so many Nobel Prize winners have worked in the United States. But since 2003, the NIH budget has increased by a mere 11% in absolute dollars; after accounting for inflation, this is a decrease 21%. I am glad that my U.S. representative, Kevin Yoder, is working toward increasing NIH funding; he must have read my letter!

My major qualm with most of the federally funded biomedical research comes from asking “why.” Why are we doing this? What is the point? The majority of my colleagues are studying the genes and proteins that govern various disease processes; they are trying to understand how things work. The idea is that this knowledge will give us targets to manipulate, usually with small molecules, which are increasingly antibodies. While I do think that this type of basic biological research has value and should continue, I must point out that it is all directed toward a common goal: a patentable solution.

Why? Medical treatment is lucrative. For example, pharmaceutical companies enjoy profit margins of about 30%, due in part to spending twice as much on marketing as they do on research and development. Nevertheless, industry plays an important role in clinical research, funding nearly 75% of clinical trials in the U.S. Research is expensive and clinicians need well-designed experiments to make evidence-based decisions in medicine. The problem is that companies invest in clinical trials. The goal is to make money, not elucidate the truth. The ethical dilemmas of privately funded clinical trials are exposed in this heart-wrenching tale of an “adverse event.”

Industry funding research is analogous to industry funding political campaigns. Science seeks to understand the nature of reality, government to serve the people; these goals can be co-opted by ulterior motives. Corporate lobbying now dominates American politics. When lobbying, companies are betting that they can earn the greatest return on their dollar by spending money influencing politicians. This creates tax and regulatory structure for the interest of profit, not the public. Circling back… the rhetoric of politics contrasts starkly with that of science.

In simplest terms, the lay press writes to entertain and generate controversy, while scientists write for accuracy and interest. In scientific discourse, facts must hold up to scrutiny; unfortunately, this does not happen as often as it should. One can massage the message, but never the data! Scientists have peer-review; politicians now have Politifact. After repeatedly finding unrecognizable quotes of his in the newspaper the day after giving a talk, Doherty recommends combating misinformation by distributing written copies at all speaking occasions with press present.

Doherty also describes how he has changed his tone and goals when communicating broadly. He works toward an outcome of compromise with diplomacy and persuasion, rather than using harsh honesty to humiliate those that hold opposing views, which is (somewhat) acceptable in science. It is better to do right than be right. It’s unfortunate that self-righteousness feels so good!

There are two other major distinguishing characteristics of scientific culture that Doherty defines. First, scientists must be able to holding opposing views simultaneously: it is a grave error to be inappropriately certain. One must have constant vigilance against type I error! Scientists are also allowed to change their mind, i.e., flip-flopping is okay. Doherty describes how scientists end up tanking their careers because they cannot let go of a failed idea. As detailed in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, breakthroughs come from the abandonment of a reigning paradigm, i.e., an accepted way of knowing. Extraordinary science forces colleagues to reevaluate their beliefs. Unfortunately, scientists are also prone to our irrational defense mechanisms against inconvenient information.

In conclusion, it has been a privilege to train as a scientist at the University of Kansas Medical Center. I had an excellent mentoring team, both official and unofficial. I was allowed to pursue my passions and make mistakes. My primary mentor half-joked that she likes to give her students “just enough hope to hang themselves with.” I struggled. I had to engineer solutions to problems I could not have imagined; Murphy’s law is real. I have experienced a few nirvana-like moments of discovery, when I are the only person in the world to know something. In fact, I love science so much that I am continuing to do research during medical school because it’s fun! I hope that my contributions will help improve the lives of others.

I will end with my favorite quotation from the book. It comes from Doherty’s 8th grade teacher, Miss Thompson. “Good, better, best. May you never rest, till your good is better, and your better best.” Maybe one day, my best will deserve a Nobel Prize!