Sunday, February 28, 2010

What Are Scientists Made Of?

Last Thursday, the Duke Career Center, the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences & and Policy (IGSP) and Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) sponsored a screening of the documentary “Naturally Obsessed: The Making of a Scientist,” the story of three PHD candidates working to establish their careers in a Columbia University lab. The students are working to isolate proteins and determine their structures using X-ray crystallography, a difficult technique that requires a lot of luck.

The documentary, filmed over the course of three years, captures the heartbreaking failure that can follow months of work, as well as the surprising triumph that can result from a breakthrough. Each of the three students has their own reason for being there, and each approach their research in a different way. (Click here to read a review)

At the beginning of the movie, lab director Larry Shapiro somewhat controversially says that “one of the best things you can do as a scientist is suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). You become obsessed with a problem and can’t stop working on it until you find your answer.”

However, Dr. Rochelle Schwartz-Bloom, director of Duke’s Center for Science Education, argues that “you don’t have to be OCD or obsessed to love what you’re doing, you just have to have passion for it.”

Schwartz-Bloom was one of six panelists who shared their thoughts with the audience after the movie.

Grad student Vincent Chen was impressed with the film’s accuracy “in terms of the ups and downs in science. You have a lot of failures, and very few successes.”

Grad student Cynthia Tedore disagreed. “I didn’t see the repeated failure as accurate from my point of view. In any field, it’s bad to pursue one project with a small chance of succeeding. It’s better to pursue several.”

A member of the audience commented that, based on her experience in an X-ray crystallography lab, she thought the filmmakers did a good job. “I was touched by everything that happened. There are upsides and downsides. X-ray crystallography is very different from other fields, so [the movie] might not reflect what happens in other labs.”

Schwartz-Bloom said that the movie made her nervous with its emphasis on hard labor with a small chance of success. “A lot of kids today don’t go into science because they think it’s ‘too hard.’ Even people with some passion for it decide that they don’t want to do it.” She worried that the movie would only encourage this sentiment.

Fortunately, not everyone was so discouraged. My bio major friend told me that, despite the grim portrayal, she had not been dissuaded from her goal to be a scientist.

At the end of the discussion, the panelists offered their advice for aspiring researchers like my friend.

“Sometimes it is important to know when to quit, when a problem is impossible to solve. Otherwise, you can trash your entire career.” -- post-doc Rebekah Fleming

“Be a sponge. Take in everything you can, because you don’t know when you’ll need it in the future.” -- Schwartz-Bloom

“Don’t be afraid to find out what your weaknesses are, and how to fix them.” -- Tedore

“Science should be fun. If you’re doing it for your boyfriend or for your parents, you can do it for a while, but eventually it’ll break your heart.” -- panel moderator, professor Mohamed Noor of the Biology Department

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