Columns Opinion

Keep working with your hands

Ron Vale

Science involves a long apprenticeship of practical work. From undergraduate, to Masters, to Ph.D., to postdoc, one build up skills for performing experiments. In addition to mastering techniques, one becomes savvy at experimental work; we develop a type of intuition of what might work and what to try next. In addition, most scientists in training enjoy the practical elements of our profession, whether it is involves pipetting at the bench, modeling on a computer, generating images with a microscope, or gathering data in the field.

If one succeeds in generating scientific data, one can get a job as a professor or in a pharmaceutical company. But then, in the course of the ensuing year, experimental work for many comes to a grinding halt. There are grants to write, students to talk to, meetings to attend, coffee to drink, and many, many emails to write. It is hard to find two contiguous days to execute a complete experiment. Your buffers have disappeared; the new student has taken your abandoned pipettemen. And what is the point anyway? It is not likely that you will be able to collect enough data to generate a publishable study. What you really need is more students. Yes, more students. Maybe they are not as well trained as you are, but if you have ten of them, maybe that will increase your chances of getting tenure. 

What is wrong with this picture? In my opinion, young PIs are leaving the bench too early and becoming administrators. This is especially the case at larger US universities, but I think that it is also true at Indian institutes as well. It is a sign of the times. However, I would send young PIs the following message- if you enjoy working at the bench, keep doing it as long as you can. I had my own research projects when I was an assistant professor; perhaps it was a bit selfish, because I enjoyed the thrill of the chase” and was not quite ready to live vicariously through others. (I had 8 first author papers as an Assistant/​Associate Professor between 1987 and 1994, 3 in Cell with 2 covers; but don’t freak out- those were different times and easier to publish!). The main point was that I was young, still having fun doing science. I would like to think that I could convey some of my enthusiasm for science by doing it, and not just having meetings in my office. Granted, life has changed since then (only 2 first author publications since 1994). Family has supplanted my attention and your situation may be similar (and family should always come first and be your greatest reward!!). 

The point of spending time in the lab as a young PI is not generating publications, despite my remarks above. The value comes from elsewhere. First, and foremost, if you have fun doing it, that is most important. It will make you happier and feel more connected to science. Try to make the time, even if once per year. Second, it sets a good example for students and postdocs who can learn by seeing how you set up and think about an experiment and witness your enthusiasm. Third, if you mess up your experiment, that will be very encouraging to them; your students/​postdocs who will see that it is not just them who fail. Fourth, it will put you in touch with the reality of the lab and generating data for publication. It is easy to outline plans on a blackboard in your office; it is another matter to execute them. I think the greatest value of my last first author publication (2009) was going through myself what it takes to complete all of the experiments, analyze data, make figures, respond to review comments, etc. Fifth, when you are a very young faculty, you will be the best person in your lab, so you represent a valuable resource. Sixth, you might be the best person to take on a tough experiment or explore some new idea. Even if you do not complete it, your pioneering work can be passed along to a student in your lab to take on as a project. 

Lastly, experimental work is not solely for the young. I am very inspired by work done by senior scientists in the summers at the Marine Biological Laboratory (I come there and attempt to be one of them, with mixed success). Avram Hersko is wonderful example. He is a senior scientist and a Nobel Prize winner. He certainly has no need to prove himself or struggle to get a grant. Yet, every summer he comes to the MBL so that he can have uninterrupted time to work in the lab. Everyday, he is doing an experiment himself (including pouring his own polyacrylamide gels!). Why? Because he enjoys it; because that is what science is about. Young or old, let us not forget our roots and what drove us to become scientists in the first place.