A radical-free talk about the scientific career: 3 Ds that allow for an E

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by Francisco Laurindo

Can professionalism be learned? Certainly, to some extent, but likely not in the way you learn Chemistry or Biology, for example. But you can – and you should – discuss it, in order to trigger further thoughts that can help to achieve personal improvement. This is the idea of this short essay, derived from lectures given at our annual retreats over the years. While written with the young student in mind, I think it fits other ages as well… It should not be read rationally, but emotionally, just like it was written.

A general feeling among scientists is that science is not for everyone and that the scientific career is unusual in many aspects. To a good extent, this is true. Successful scientists work very, very hard, often under deadline-induced pressures, generally under lower than average financial rewards, and are submitted to an unsurmountable amount of frustrations, which include: grant rejections, paper rejections, negative results, inconclusive results, incomplete papers, failure to attract and keep good students, incomprehension, lack of support, lack of recognition, and…bureaucracy, actually extreme bureaucracy. Yet, despite occasional downs, which hopefully will be shallow and transient, most just love their career choices. Passionately. Persistently. As a scientist, I wonder why this is so. In no other career one is thrilled by the excitement of discovery, of sharing the understanding of nature, even as an extremely small and humble part of it. In few other careers, every single day is completely unique and allows for novel challenges. Few other careers push your capabilities to your very extreme. In no other career one can form people through an individualized process that allows shaping each other’s minds. Also, the scientific career, at all levels from academy to industry, continuously exposes the scientist to gifted and intelligent colleagues from whom we can learn quite a lot. In a word, we can say that science provides a sense of …enchantment. This is not felt always. Sometimes it is absent for long periods and even for very long periods. But from the moment it is revived, even if briefly, the previous hardships will seem to have been worthwhile. Even though a few scientist colleagues of mine will disagree, I will shamelessly use my advantage as the Newsletter Editor to state, on a personal note, that I still firmly believe that enchantment is what brings most students to science – at least the best – and the perspective of enchantment will keep them going on. So, …enchantment. That is the “E” of the title.

Just like paper reviews, which often start praising the work and then kill it, you may be wondering….go ahead with the bad news! You are right. The first one is that there is a false enchantment, which is quite dangerous. By false, I mean the pseudo-enchantment feeling of superficially scratching the possible gold, but just making a phantasy and not effectively digging to touch it. It is similar but less legitimate than the fascination of a non-scientist for science. This associates with being unfocused, procrastinator, superficial…and unproductive. It can be quite insidious and only reveal itself when it is too late. The second bad news follows logically: enchantment does not come for free. Neither in science nor anywhere else. Versions ranging from the prosaic “there is no such a thing as a free lunch” to the sophisticated “per aspera ad astra” provide the same message: one needs to cultivate qualities that require significant effort to get the prize, the gold. These qualities make up the “Ds” of the title.

The first “D” is easy to guess. Dedication. If you quickly think “Oh! of course I am dedicated”, chances are that you are not. Those that are truly dedicated are often uneasy with their levels of commitment and at least will stop and think deeper over this question. That is because dedication does not equal accomplishing your duties in a bureaucratic doggish way. It is true that a prime issue is indeed how many weekly hours you work in scientific matters. Unwritten universal experience indicates that nothing substantial is accomplished even in the best research centers if someone does not work a minimum of around 60 hours/week. Even if you are a genius. However, it is also true that even working above normal and “doing my maximum” is not enough, first because quality of the work is essential (wait for the other Ds) and second, because your perceived maximum is much less than your real maximum. That is, true dedication involves working a lot, working well and continuously looking yourself for new solutions, and new challenges as well. Dressing, eating , dreaming, sweating, talking, thinking over and over your scientific questions. As an integral part of this process, one has to find and cultivate new capabilities that allow progression in a given field of interest. In other words, dedication involves continuously rediscovering yourself to match given challenges. This carries another D, determination, which I will not single out at this time. Dedication is highly individual, but many individuals are highly influenced or dominated by the milieu in which they act. Thus, you can also talk about a “group mood” or an “institutional mood” of dedication, either one important determinants of the perceived level to which a member (especially a newcomer) feels like dedicating her/himself. While it is difficult to generalize about group moods of dedication, I believe it is safe to say that the mood of most institutions in our country is still quite precarious (I will arbitrarily assign this statement a p<0.05), for a number of reasons I will skip saying. It quickly follows that if you want to seriously dedicate yourself to scientific questions you have to detach yourself from the mass. That happens for many other things (the other Ds, by the way) and you can survive very well to that. Actually I would simply call this …maturity, and I have seen this quality emerge in many students independently of their age. Invariably, this characteristic is a good marker of success in science.

The second D is hard to swallow. Discipline. And it is ugly because discipline translates into doing at the precise moment what you know well that has to be done but you do not feel like doing it. If you are still reading this article (from the beginning, I mean) you probably have a minimum of it. Most of those that approach the scientific career have this minimum. The problem is that this minimum is not enough. The challenges to be surpassed in the pursuit of quality science require a whole lot of discipline. This means things like regular hours in the experiments, routine extended hours in the lab, holiday/weekend working hours, thinking over results and analyzing data before the next experiment is repeated, not leaving the housekeeping work for tomorrow, keeping record books, reading papers in-between experiments, shorter lunch hours to enhance lab work productivity…. and so on. Moreover, the true discipline is really put to a challenging test when things are not going straight. The fatal circle in the lab is to decrease dedication and discipline when things start to go wrong. Considering that all works go through longer or shorter periods of negative and inconclusive results (I like to call these periods as “going through the cloud”), it follows that discipline is a direct factor determining the best possible outcome from this cloud, allowing you to get even a short glimpse of the surrounding landscape that is essential to keep going on.

Dis·cern·ment (noun \di-ˈsərn-mənt, -ˈzərn-\): the ability to see and understand people, things, or situations clearly and intelligently (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). The third D, and a capital one. For scientists, discernment has a very broad meaning, going from attitude, perception and maturity to a technical understanding of the scientific question being targeted. Acquiring discernment is at the core of scientific formation (and of personal growth as well, but I will not talk about it, as this is not a self-help pamphlet). I could say many things about discernment, but here I stick to two. First, making the best choices in science requires educated and profound information. That means reading and studying a lot. Considering that the scientific background of most beginner students in our system is below the desirable level (I will arbitrarily assign a P<0.01 to this statement),.it follows that the average brazilian student would have to read even more than the corresponding student at the most traditional internacional centers. Reading one paper a day is a good goal for essentially every student. What I usually see, however, is the opposite, with our students reading and debating science at levels clearly insufficient (I will arbitrarily assign a p<0.001 to this statement). It follows that their correct decision/time coefficient tends to be quite low. So, even if correct solutions are found, they tend to be too late and to compromise the whole final work. And time is crucial and runs very very fast. A sense of urgency, that everything is for yesterday, is actually a very good sign at discernment. The second touchstone of discernment is efficiency. That involves cleverness and wisdom in planning and organizing the flow of the investigation. The wisdom of asking the right questions and designing the right experiments. And, back to the previous D, also discipline and patience to dissect step-by-step the most crucial experimental steps of your work. And also organization in the experiments and the most efficient use of time. A general law, especially for our labs in Brazil, is: talk less, think more and read much more. Although sometimes you have to talk a lot, but to the right person.

I guess it is about time to finish writing this. But I still have two messages I want to leave. The first is that, although you construct all the above “Ds” over your lifetime, they can be cultivated during your scientific training. And to a good extent learned from scratch. This requires focus and determination, but it is necessary. This means also that mentors and mentees should talk about this individually and as a group. A good “mood of dedication” of a group can also be enhanced, although this is a slower process. Of course, talking has limited efficacy. The supervisor her/himself is the first to provide good examples of dedication, discipline and discernment. And you should start by choosing a supervisor and a group that indeed shows these qualities – yes, you should look hard for a group, do not take the first one that crosses your path. Now, frankly speaking, everything I talked so far has to do with achieving the good scientific contribution you dreamed about when you looked at science. That is, the quality science that we pursue so much in our country at this precise moment. For students, I am not talking about finishing your thesis. This is (sadly) easy in the brazilian system (I will arbitrarily assign a p<0.0001 to this statement – how many failures have you heard about on your program?). For post-docs, I am also not talking about just getting “another job”. If those are your only goals, you have wasted your time reading this article.

The second take-home message might surprise you: you are NOT a genius (I will arbitrarily assign a p<0.00001 to this statement – this is pure statistics!). Yes, you probably have a reasonable portfolio of qualities that are needed for science and which made you get where you are now. But at the bottom you and me are ordinary people that only happen to like science. In this context, I believe the statement of the beginning of this text, i.e., that “science is not for everyone and the scientific career is unusual in many aspects” should not be misinterpreted to mean that you can stay above the ordinary daily hardships of a normal profession (which translate in heavy work and studying……) and solutions will come miraculously to you or to your supervisor. Well, that happens to very few people that are extraordinarily gifted, but even for them, if you look hard, somewhere into their lives there was a lot of work and dedication. To me, that is exactly the beauty of science: the scientific contributions and enchantment we talked above can be achieved by people having talents that are not particularly extraordinary. However, a premise is that they cultivate the “D” qualities. I will leave you with the original (and personal favorite) quotation that inspired the last paragraph [1]: “It is the discipline of science that enables us as ordinary people…to go about doing ordinary things, which, when assembled, reveal the extraordinary intricacies and awesome beauties of nature. Science not only permits us to contribute to the progress of grand enterprises but also offers a changing and endless frontier for exploration of nature”.

  1. A. Kornberg.
    Basic research: the lifeline of medicine.
    The FASEB Journal, 6 (13): 3143-45, 1992. | http://www.fasebj.org/cgi/pmidlookup?view=long&pmid=1397835

Francisco Rafael Martins Laurindo, PhD.
Professor at Instituto do Coração,
Faculty of Medicine, University of São Paulo, Brazil.
Editor in Chief of Redoxoma Newsletter

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One Comment

  1. Once more, Chico Laurindo expressed with awesome words all our feelings!

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