Op-Ed: A Lesson from the Research Lab

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As a pre-med student, you have undoubtedly been told that research is a vital activity to engage in for the sake of being a competitive applicant to medical school. Today, a member of the Atlantis team writes about why independent research is a great activity to participate in for its own sake. Research is a school in which to learn integrity, honesty, and depth of inquiry.

We hope you enjoy the following story.


         When I was in college, I had a friend who I’ll call Jennifer. She was studying biology and working as a research assistant in a science lab. During her last year at school, Jennifer decided that she wanted to put her efforts towards a senior thesis, a culmination of all her research and work in the lab. For months, she spent hours in the lab, gathering data and analyzing the observations she made.


One morning, a few weeks before the end of the spring semester of her senior year, Jennifer went into the lab to finish the analysis of her latest experiments. Sitting there at her lab bench, she noticed a strange trend in the data on one of the graphs. Confused, she opened up her other data sheets and started inputting the most recent data from different procedures. The trend was not isolated to that first graph. Clicking through data set after data set, Jennifer came to a disconcerting realization: all of the data she had collected over the past several months directly contradicted her original hypothesis.


 // All of the data she had collected over the past several months directly contradicted her original hypothesis. //


At this point in the semester, Jennifer had already finished writing her thesis, except for the conclusion. It had taken her months to refine and finesse the document, and now she was faced with the prospect of having to rewrite the behemoth in three weeks.

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After the initial panic of her realization had passed, Jennifer decided to go see her research adviser. His one-sentence response to her explanation was unexpectedly simple:

“That’s science.”

That’s science. As simple as that.

Jennifer understood the deeper meaning of what her adviser was trying to help her understand that morning: The most important part of science is not proving your hypothesis to be correct. It’s not about the glamorous, “Eureka” moments in pristine lab coats that we all imagine. No, it’s the moments when things do not go according to plan, when expectations are not met and when assumptions are contradicted that produce the most significant and groundbreaking data. History has taught us that great scientists are usually the ones who discover that their hypotheses are incorrect. They’re the ones who come away from their projects with more questions than answers.


// One of the greatest scientific discoveries in human history was an accident. //


One of the greatest scientific discoveries in human history was an accident. In 1928, Alexander Fleming returned to his lab in London only to discover that an unidentified mold had been growing on one of his petri dishes of bacteria while he was on vacation. The mold, now known as penicillin, had killed the Staphylococcus bacteria nearby. Although Fleming recognized the significance of what he had just stumbled upon, it wasn’t until many years later in 1939 that a group of medical researchers unlocked the true potential of penicillin as an antibiotic, just in time for the dawn of World War II.

The example of Fleming and the discovery of penicillin is an extreme one. But it captures a reality found in the simple phrase “that’s science.” Things do not tend to go according to plan in scientific research. Fleming wasn’t looking for an antibiotic that morning. In his own words, “when [he] woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, [he] certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer.”


// In research, you have to be willing to face the facts, look at the data honestly and objectively, and ask the hard questions. //


Like many things in life, research requires a level of flexibility with a heavy dose of integrity. In research, you have to be willing to face the facts, look at the data honestly and objectively, and ask the hard questions. Questions like why didn’t the data from my experiments reflect my hypothesis, why do those graphs look odd, and what’s going on here that my hypothesis can’t explain? These kinds of questions not only keep researchers intellectually honest, they also allow scientists to begin to explore and understand the unexplained phenomena they see in the world around them.

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In the end, everything turned out ok for Jennifer. She did the honest, scientific, thing by leaving all her data, procedures, and numbers entirely intact. Then she spent the next three weeks crafting a conclusion that discussed in depth what she had discovered in the lab that contradicted her thesis. She dedicated the remainder of the semester to asking the hard questions. By the time she turned in her thesis, she had even started to see the potential for further research, exploring the implications of her discovery.

 

As a premed student, I hope you have the opportunity to work in a research lab. Not only could you be a part of exciting scientific discoveries, you will have the opportunity to be exposed to some of the most important lessons of your preparation for a career in medicine.  Practicing impeccable honesty, learning how to ask difficult questions, and becoming comfortable with the plot twists that science and medicine (and life) will throw at you are invaluable experiences.

 

About Julia

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Julia grew up in Northern Virginia and graduated with high distinction from the University of Virginia with Bachelors degrees in biology and music. She plans to attend medical school in 2019. She has traveled abroad to eight countries in Europe, including France, Germany, and the Czech Republic. As a member of the Atlantis team, Julia enjoys helping other pre-med students discover a love for medicine and grow in their understanding of the field.


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