Doing scientific research

As part of the rite of passage for undergraduate students who wish to graduate with honours from the National University of Singapore, we have to do a final year project (thesis). Every faculty requires students to do theses although the exact details differ from one faculty/ department to another. For instance, students from the Faculty of Engineering do research in the first semester and write their thesis in the second while students from the Faculty of Science do research until the deadline of the thesis submission arrives. I am from the Faculty of Science and have been doing research for almost 2.5 months and my area of research involves organic and inorganic synthesis as well as substantial cell work. My group makes platinum complexes and test for their potency in vitro. I have done the relevant literature review, carried out some experiments and made some presentations. There are still many months ahead and it is still early days but this is what I feel about doing scientific research so far:

1. Scientific research is a time-consuming endeavour.

Research has really kept me busy – not only do I spend all my weekdays (sometimes weeknights) in the lab doing work, I also spend a portion of my weekend planning experiments and processing experimental results. In addition, I can’t take my mind off what I am going to do the next day in lab. I am
happy to have e-learning week not because I could rest but because it means no distraction from research work. In essence, I have become a kind of workaholic. Lab work is rather tiring and it involves a great deal of patience. I often have to consciously remind myself to take water and toilet breaks.

Of course the sad truth about research is that the number of hours you put in may not correlate with the results you’ll get. Failures are also part and parcel of the research experience. Anyhow, if you never try you never know if the next thing you try is going to work. I really would want to immerse in the research experience for this one year – I don’t want to keep using the fact that I am going into teaching as a career in the future as an excuse to divorce myself from this experience. If science indeed has revolutionized how people think about life and how people make new things in the past century or two, I really want to know how this scientific community works and what scientific endeavours are about.

2. Scientific research is subjective – depends on the intended outcome.

I thought about this while doing the literature review for my project. There are so many data available and there is no central institution to formalize a particular protocol or a school of thought. The scientific community works by peer reviews and papers published in ‘high-impact’ journals such as Nature are perceived to be more trust-worthy and more important. Because of this perceived importance, people tend to carry out research in that area. The question to be asked is ‘who guards the guards?’ Who decides what is ground-breaking? On what basis do they make the decision? Is this the best way for people to communicate their interests with one another? I feel that after a while, some ideas get reiterated simply because they appear before in those ‘high-impact’ journals which researchers around the world tend to read more than other journals. Over time, some ideas get propagated and they may or may not be the best way to do things.

I hope I am misinterpreting the situation but as of now, I feel that scientific research is people working in their own labs, picking relevant facts and data from other people’s work to support what they are doing (‘this is done in the literature’ is enough to silence the supervisor) and market their idea to publishers. I feel that the lack of real continuity in research undermines its true purpose – to understand natural phenomeneon.

On this note, I find the current general lack of interest in theoretical science rather disheartening. Most scientists do practical things which can be applied. My own research has pretty practical ends as well. Theoretically, it will be nice to have more people questioning the scientific fundamentals like Einstein, Heisenberg etc but practically, I understand that it is easier to get funding for projects which have practical ends.

3. Reduced social circle.

This is a brutal fact that struck me recently. The social circle is reduced in two ways – 1) you tend to spend more time with lab-mates than with other friends so you grow close to them and 2) you tend to feel that lab-mates understand you better than people outside of the lab. When I meet my friends, I fall short of conversation starters because most things that affect me on a daily basis revolve around the lab and it’s impossible to share the joy and woes with people who don’t have the technical knowledge. At the end of this one year, I wonder how I would feel leaving the lab which has already become my second home?

4. Small things make/ break your day.

This point and point #3 are pretty much intertwined. I spoke to a lab-mate about this and she agreed. A good NMR spectrum really makes our day and bad results depress us. It’s impossible to share such simple joy and woes with people who don’t have the technical knowledge. Because of this, I don’t feel entirely excited meeting up with old friends. This is a very unusual lifestyle for me because all my life, I have been dealing with non-specialized things.

Not only have these small things that make/ break my day changed my inter-personal relationships, also somewhat change my personality. I used to live life quite calmly with little day-to-day emotional fluctuations. Because of these small things, my emotions surge and plunge multiple times in a day and it’s really unhealthy in the long run.

5. Office politics are trivial.

Office politics are everywhere and I have seen people disliking one another for not doing their slice of work properly and for money issues. Lab politics, in comparison, seem trivial – I have seen how people bicker over round-bottomed flasks, weighing papers etc. I witnessed how two researchers almost got into a fight over washing round-bottomed flasks. It’s ridiculous but it happens. I hope I won’t meet any!

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