Why must we and how to do research?

Sometimes, common sense is not always the best approach. There also multiple (sometimes conflicting) theories / perspectives about what works for a particular problem or challenge.

That’s why we must do research. The general aims of research are to observe, describe, explain, determine the cause, predict and share. Based on these aims, research hence encapsulates our daily activities to understand ourselves and our world. For centuries, research and development (R&D) has contributed to better human lives, from daily smart phones and computers that we use, to eradication of diseases and extension of human lives.

One of the best way to learn how to do research is to undertake a PhD project. “By the time you finish elementary school, you know a little. By the time you finish high school, you know a bit more. With a bachelor’s degree, you gain a specialty: A master’s degree deepens that specialty. Reading research papers takes you to the edge of human knowledge. Once you’re at the boundary, you focus. You push at the boundary for a few years. Until one day, the boundary gives way. And, that dent you’ve made is called a Ph.D. Of course, the world looks different to you now.” Thus, always remember the bigger picture and keep pushing.

Although more PhDs have been produced than there is demand for them in research positions, we still must do research, may be not as a career per se. Research encompasses “the desire to know and understand the word, to appreciate the best that has been said and thought on the topics that grip our imaginations.”

Changes are the law of life. Nothing is constant. In the past, we learned that eating fish is good for our health and many of long-living people have practiced it. However, we may have to reduce our seafood consumption due to sea water pollution, for example radioactive pollution related to 2011 Fukushima disaster and the potential carcinogenic implications. There are still other resources of omega-3 such as avocado, flaxseed oil, grass-fed beef, walnuts, enriched eggs, that may help prevent cardiovascular and neurologic diseases (e.g. Alzheimer’s and depression).

As we increasingly become more connected globally, a local action can have massive and dramatic global effects. Environments matter. For example, researchers have attempted to study the proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease, but they did not consider the surrounding water molecules, until recently, and only realized that these water molecules play crucial roles in protein aggregation. The similar phenomenon may possibly occur at global levels, in which our oceans have evolved and changed, and are affecting us directly or indirectly.

To further highlight the importance of environment, Rudolf (Ruedi) Aebersold mentioned it as his most important lesson. “Understanding the importance of the research environment, specifically the colleagues around you, which includes your immediate lab group, but also the scientists in the broader environment. Great colleagues are an inspiration, judges of ideas, a resource for innovation – and they make work pleasant and fun.”

The young and the innocent are often drawn to science for its pursuit of objective truth and the opportunity for discovery; but like many fields, science involve people. Whenever and wherever there are people, there will be (multiple) interests of people (read: the political aspects). Hope that we (regardless of our circumstances) will continue gaining inspirations from the young and the innocent to continue doing research, and appreciating the efforts and wisdom of those who have come and attempted before us.

Please do not forget the chief purpose why you started research, some people even make research their raison d’etre. “The ink of the scholar is more holy than the blood of the martyr.

The act of research encourages and propels each of us to undergo transformation into a better, wiser, smarter person.

Similar to top students in colleges, researchers are lifelong learners and lifelong students. Researches can use the following top study skills to perform research.

  1. Plan your work.
  2. Create systems. For example, develop “a comprehensive system of research, preparation, outlining, writing, and revising to approach every paper, no matter the subject.”
  3. Collaborate with others.
  4. Set routines/habits. Devote at least 2, 3, and increasing number of pomodoro to research daily.
  5. Write early, write often, write consistently.
  6. Ship it fast and get feedback (work in short sprints).

A former mentor (well, once a mentor will always be a mentor in my heart/boson) associated with Howard Hughes Medical Institute once advised that a researcher must read at least n (25?) new research articles weekly. Honestly, I am not always adhering to this piece of advice, but I am trying to work smart in this direction. It is not enough to just read, we must actively read and synthesize something new from integrating the previously knowns and the currently knowns to solve many unknowns.

On 20151106, I used almost 10 pomodoro to compose a 330-word recommendation, while I initially thought that I would only use 2 pomodoro. Perhaps, I wanted to ensure the highest quality of word by reading as much as possible prior to finalizing my work.

Given our limited resources (time, energy, $), we must be more creative than ever to be productive. If possible, avoid/minimize lengthy, insecure postdoctoral research positions. “Faculty members rely on cheap PhD students and postdocs because they are trying to get the most science out of stretched grants.

No matter what challenges we face, we must honor and practice integrity. Warren Buffet adviced to “look for three things in a person – intelligence, energy and integrity. If they don’t have the last one, don’t even bother with the first two.”

Regardless of what you end up doing in life, research skills and habits are essentials as highlighted by many scientifically minded professionals, including a chemist PhD turned investment banker (Iranian-born, Swedish-nurtured Soroosh Shambayati, chief executive at Guggenheim Investment Advisors (Suisse) in Geneva, Switzerland), a physicist PhD turned internet entrepreneur (Renata Sarno who used her profit to support gene therapy), a stay-at-home Dad who teaches two days a week at a community college (Eric Pane, PhD in physiology).

An essential-for-survival-and-advancement advice that I learned from a famous giant in my alma mater is to stand on the shoulder of giants. If you cannot compete with them, join them. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate … with right people, at right time and place. For example, cardiologist Jessica Mega, molecular biologist Cynthia Kenyon, electrical engineer Brian Otis have joined Google / or Google-backed startups.

See also:

How to research? This collection of information was initiated for a potential mentee, it does not matter if she joins me or not, at least I have shared with her some general yet useful research techniques. To quote the Guardian reporting on the disturbing story of Haruko Obokata that serves as an important reminder for all researchers, “Not only are most experiments not reproduced, most are probably not reproducible. This statement will shock only those who have never worked in a wet lab. Those who have will already suspect as much. A few years ago, Glenn Begley put this suspicion to the test. As head of cancer research for pharmaceutical giant Amgen, he attempted to repeat 53 landmark experiments in that field, important work published in some of the world’s top science journals. To his horror, he and his team managed to confirm only six of them. That’s a meagre 11%. Researchers at Bayer set up a similar trial and were similarly depressed by the results. Out of 67 published studies into the therapeutic potential of various drugs (mostly for the treatment of cancer), they were able to reproduce less than a quarter.

20160113 via DG


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