11 March 2015

“What’s our Nature paper?”

A few years ago, a candidate interviewing for a gig in our department said that he routinely asked people in the lab, “What’s our Nature paper?”

I have severe concerns about chasing after glamour magazine publications. But that question stuck with me. I may hate the way the question is phrased, but I understand what the question is asking at a deeper level. It’s asking, “What research will do you do that would be important, not just to your narrow field, but to science generally? What research would you do that would change the world?”

And when I thought about my own work, I didn’t have an answer.

It’s a well known thing in psychology that when things go wrong, we blame external influences. (But when things go right, we credit ourselves.) And it’s increasingly easy to say, “I can’t have a manuscript worth sending to Nature because grants are hard to get these days, my teaching load is too heavy, the best students won’t apply to my program, we don’t have a doctoral program...” and on and on and on.

And then I asked, “What if none of those were problems? What if I had no other commitments, and all the supplies and cash and colleagues I needed? What would be my Nature paper?”

And I still don’t have an answer.

Maybe as you go on in your career, you get complacent. You have a line of research, and you know what the next experiment is for the next few papers. And you don’t stop to ask yourself, “Forget about external limitations, do I have an question or an idea that – if I could answer it well and before anyone else – would shake things up?”

Ambition has a bad rap in science. There are a lot of people with massive egos who are very ambitious. But ambition is not all bad. You can achieve a lot of positive things if you are ambitious. So maybe it’s worth asking yourself, “Am I being ambitious enough?”

Myself, I have the ambition to live 300 years. I will not live 300 years. Maybe I will live one year more. But I have the ambition.
Why will you not have ambition? Why?
Have the greatest ambition possible.
You want to be immortal? Fight to be immortal. Do it.
You want to make the most fantastic art of movie? Try.
If you fail, it’s not important. We need to try.
Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jodorowksy’s Dune (2014)

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