Tag Archives: PhD

Making science (part V): Bad project

“I want good data, a paper in Cell
But I got a project straight from Hell”

“I wanna graduate in less than five years
But there ain’t no getting out of here”

“Oh oh oh… caught in a bad project”

Crazy mice. Smelly brain cells. Empty Western blots. It’s a bad project alright. Or… is it? There are indeed bad projects out there. Research projects begin with a question that is to be answered. If no question has been formulated, however general, and experiments are being done only because they are doable, then a bad project is on the horizon. With a question at hand, hypotheses have to be made as to the posssible answers, ideally covering all logical possibilities. Lack of hypotheses in a project is not a good sign. The question posed may not be answereable. (We’ve all heard about hypothesis-free studies. That’s okey for a group leader with 50 postdocs and lots of other projects. Not recommended  to anyone that wants to graduate and get a job in less than five years!) Hypotheses help designing the experiments that are going to distinguish between them. Experiments are typically designed to systematically disprove them one by one. A neat, key experiment to prove one of the hypothesis upfront is more difficult to come by. Some experiments may just add support to a particular hypothesis, but not prove it or disprove it outright. So far so good. But a good project should also allow for serendipitous discoveries. Paradoxically, serendipity is one of the most common ways of advancement in science. Alas, serendipity can not be planned. But it can be encouraged. In addition to concrete goals and defined questions, research projects that allow some amount of open-ended possibilites have greater chances to extend into (positively) unexpected directions. It’s a fine balance, in which informed intuition plays a vital role. (For a discussion of intuitive thinking, see Making Science Part III.) Lady Science in the video above seems to be having more problems than just a bad project. But those are topics of other discussions.

Making science (part II): The making of a scientist

Former postdoc fellow Svend Kjaer has today published his first first-author paper after leaving the lab. It has appeared online at the Nature Structure and Molecular Biology website. He’s got the first glimpse of the three-dimensional structure of the extracellular domain of the RET receptor, giving insights into how it binds ligand and how its mutation causes disease. Something we were striving to see for several years while he was at our lab has now been achieved and it’s one of the great success stories of making science. It took a lot of perseverance, a good measure of ingenuity and the crucial guidance and support of Svend’s current mentor and common friend Neil McDonald from the CRUK institute in London. As if by coincidence, from Svend comes also this link to the one-hour film “Naturally Obsessed: The Making of a Scientist” telling the story of three graduate students in a crystallography lab at Columbia University, NYC and their road to success (or failure) through “years of trial and error and unflinching dedication”. It gives good insights into real science making in a lab, the elusive thrill of its ups and downs, and what it takes to get to the finish line. Link from the picture above.