18 December 2014

Studying species you like

As an undergraduate, one of my professors recommended that you should study organisms that you like. In a new paper, Ferry and Shiffman talk about not getting that advice... in fact, they received advice that was about 180° away from it:

Scientists should not, according to this instructor while singling out DS and a student studying marine mammals as examples, pick a species that they “like” and then come up with a research question related to it. Author LF had a similar experience in graduate school, as she was also studying elasmobranchs. Both are/were perceived as “shark-huggers,” and felt pressure to defend their study organisms.

Ferry and Shiffman mention one common reason to study a particular organism: some are just convenient. It’s convenient for neurobiologists that squid have especially large axons, for instance. This is encapsulated as the Krogh principle, after physiologist August Krogh (pictured), who codified it thus:

For many problems there is an animal in which it can be most conveniently studied.

However, convenience is not, and should not, be the sole arbiter of species that people study. In fact, Krogh himself mentioned this, in the very same article (my emphasis):

I want to say a word for the study of comparative physiology also for its own sake. You will find in the lower animals mechanisms and adaptations of exquisite beauty and the most surprising character(.)

Every person picks what they study for their own reasons. It might be the organism, it might be the question, it might be something else. None of those many reasons reasons is inherently better than any other. To pick on someone for doing science than a different reason you do is pompous.

Additional: Katie Pieper made this useful remark:

But the system must be well suited for the question.


Ferry LA, Shiffman DS. 2014. The value of taxon-focused science: 30 years of elasmobranchs in biological research and outreach. Copeia 2014(4): 743-746. http://dx.doi.org/10.1643/OT-14-044

Krogh A. 1929. The progress of physiology. American Journal of Physiology 90: 243–251. http://ajplegacy.physiology.org/content/90/2/243

1 comment:

Mike Taylor said...

I would say always aim to study an organism that you love. Because it's enthusiasm that gets you through the dark nights of finishing your dissertation, rebutting jerk peer-reviewers and all the rest. And if you don't love your organism, you're going to struggle to find that enthusiasm.