By Bethany Huot and Miranda Haus
One of the most difficult tasks regarding science communication occurs at the start: identifying the Big Question. On March 10, 2017, Doug Schemske visited The Pub Club to discuss and advise us on this important topic. Due to an unavoidable conflict that had Doug in Florida, we utilized our Aquosboard technology to span the 1,200-mile gap and bring him to our living room via Zoom.
Doug started us off with a 2005 issue of Science listing the top 125 Big Questions in science, including “Why do humans have so few genes?” “How does a single somatic cell become a whole plant?” and “What determines species diversity?” He challenged us to consider how close or far removed our own research was from these “Big Questions.” He then recommended four guidelines to help identify Big Questions: 1) Question authority, 2) Be ambitious, 3) Follow your instincts, and 4) Think broadly. He cited both Charles Darwin and H. Allen Orr – two of the most cited scientists – as those who followed these four guidelines. While we want to be somewhat respectful in our questioning, paradigm shifts only occur when someone is willing to question the status quo.
Doug also described his approach to mentoring his graduate students. Rather than simply giving them a project, he would have them create a list of questions they found interesting. They would then start at the top of the list, and read 2-3 papers a week on that topic. After 2 weeks, they would discuss the papers, pulling out the Big Questions and Big Ideas. Finally, they would decide whether that topic would stay on the list or be removed. He said, depending on the length of the list, this process could take up to 2 years! But, by the end, the student had a dissertation project they owned and had gained quite a bit of knowledge to be able to pursue.
Doug acknowledged there were some potential issues with his unconventional approach, such as a lack of PI funding to support the topic selected. After discussing this as a group, we came up with a potential solution. The student would initially work on a “safe” project within the scope of the PI’s funding while they did the research phase for a potentially riskier project. This not only helped the PI achieve the goals for their grant, but also provided time for the student to read and think broadly, and develop their own, independent research questions. Once this second project was fully defined, the student would write a proposal for fellowships to fund it, since this is another skill we must develop to become independent researchers. Depending on the timing, it is also possible that this second project could be pursued during a postdoc, especially since the eligibility window for most postdoc fellowships are 6-12 months post-graduation.
Once we have identified our big questions, we need to consider how best to answer them. Again, this process requires time and thought. A suggestion Doug offered was to begin a new research endeavor by writing a review on the topic you want to pursue. Not only will this give you a strong foundation of knowledge, it will also provide you with a publication to benefit the field and add to your CV. Doug also encouraged us to consider the questions carefully, and then choose the appropriate technology. While technology is great and has paved the way to asking questions we could not address before, sometimes the best answers are from simple methods. He also cautioned us against getting stuck on a new method, as advances happen rapidly and we may get left behind!
Finally, Doug discussed the topic of publishing. We all know the importance of publishing, both for advancing in our careers as scientists, and for advancing the science within our particular fields. However, the pressure to “publish more” can be a hindrance as the field becomes inundated with papers containing partial stories of questionable quality. When the act of publishing becomes more important than the Questions being asked and the Science being published, science suffers. Finding the Big Questions and telling the full story may require that we take extra time to integrate the concepts, but what we produce from this effort will be of greater use to the scientific community.
Implementing these types of changes will require a shift within the scientific culture away from “ownership” and towards a community approach to Identifying and Solving the Big Questions. It is up to us in the next generation to carefully consider and commit to pursuing avenues to facilitate these changes.
A big thanks to Doug for taking time out of his retirement to Meet with us on the Edge of Science.