28 November 2011

Research programs: Pies and cupcakes

During Neuroscience, I talked to several people about doing research, and how my strategy for working at an undergrad institution differed a lot from more traditional research institutions.

When people asked, “What does your lab work on?” After the first couple of times where I tried to rattle off, “Let's see, in the last two years I’ve published on parasites, nocicieption, animal care, brain scan ethics, fighting, the pet trade, ecological modeling, colour polymorphism,” I made a list on paper because it was too hard to remember them all.

By the end, on the last leg of the flight home, I came up with a metaphor.

In most research labs, the supervisor’s research agenda is like a pie, where everyone gets a slice. Grad students and postdocs get big slices; undergraduates might only get crumbs. But there's just one pie. Sure, every piece is a little different, but each has more or less the same flavour.

I give my students cupcakes.

Each is separate. Each is smaller, so nobody can have a great big piece. But you can have a lot of different flavours.*

Maybe one reason why so many labs are built on the pie model is that it’s less work thinking up what to do next. A lot of people think that science is about solving problems.** But a huge part of science is about identifying problems to be solved. If you content yourself with working on a single, massive problem that will take decades, you never have to worry about scrambling for a new idea again.

But as Jose Bravo said:

People with answers always work for people with questions.

Generating a lot of questions is challenging, but it has a different set of rewards.

* To use another metaphor, from Archilochus:
The fox knows many things. But the hedgehog knows one big thing.
Most research labs are run by hedgehogs: they put everything into trying to know one big thing, so big that it can sustain decades worth of research work. I suppose it’s appropriate that my lab is more fox-like, considering the number of people who mispronounce my name that way.

** For instance, see Marie-Claire Shanahan’s wonderful post about what students identify as being a “science person” is someone for whom the problems are solved:
Many students extended definition to say that because science students are so smart they shouldn’t ever have to ask for help or further explanations. One student said in her interview that real science students “understand all concepts and go above and beyond knowledge expectations. They do not require explanation.” Another student, who didn’t see herself as a science student despite having good marks, told me that she based her assessment mostly on the fact that she asks the teacher a lot of questions to make sure she understands. “Real science students shouldn’t have to do that”, she said. This seems in some ways antithetical to science. Isn’t asking questions and pushing until you understand one of the defining characteristics of scientific scholarship? Some students went as far as to say that real science students don’t need to participate in science class because they should know the right answers already.

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