Scientific Breadth: The Good and the Bad

This week I am giving three different major talks; no, not just ‘different’, utterly and totally different. This is definitely a week of diversity in my powerpoint presentations, though none of them is actually about diversity. Linking in to a previous post about specialisation in nanoscience at different stages – undergraduate or postgraduate in that case  – it is worth considering when a multi-faceted career is a plus and when a minus. Are you better off knowing everything about rather little, or a little about a broad swathe of science?  And in what sense does ‘better’ apply anyhow?

I should state at the outset that I am definitely someone whose research fits into the second description; by now that is deliberate but probably this happened accidentally initially (like so much of my career as I’ve said before).   The three talks this week are (chronologically) the opening Key Note talk discussing Environmental Scanning Electron Microscopy at a conference on Metal Ions in Biology and Medicine here in Cambridge which I gave today; a talk tomorrow on Physics at the Interface with Biology being given to Welsh schoolteachers of Physics in Bangor; and a talk on Increasing the Size of the STEM Cohort into Higher Education, wearing my Royal Society Education Committee Chair ‘hat’, at the upcoming Sunday Times Festival of Education. Clearly the last talk is discussing research/data gathering done within the Royal Society and its splendid and hard-working team, not my own, but I still have to master the brief, so I include it here.   However, if I were transported back to being an early career researcher, I certainly would not want to cover so much ground – or be capable of doing so.

My first thought about how I have tackled my research breadth was that I practice ‘serial monogamy’, i.e. I throw myself into a single topic at a time. But a moment’s reflection showed me this was entirely wrong; I have several ‘relationships’ on the go at the same time. I don’t shed one before taking up with a new one, though I would hate to describe myself as polygamous (or even polyandrist). What I actually do is let topics slowly die as new ones seize my interests. So, my work on the mechanical properties of synthetic polymers – where I started off in the world of polymers –  became transformed into mechanical properties of Cheesy Wotsits-lookalikes (without the flavour) and that ultimately morphed into analysis of starch granule structure working with plant breeders. I never said to myself ‘today I will stop working on the failure of polymers and start working on the internal hierarchical packing of starch granules’, but over time this is what happened.  Some number of years later I found myself feeling that studying all the plant breeders’ different mutants was starting to be rather boring: an offer of 100+ offers of mutant maizes to study via Small Angle X-ray Scattering was rather easy to decline, since it would have been a cataloguing exercise not a stimulating physics problem. And, slowly, I found I was throwing myself into another problem of ‘food physics’, that of protein aggregation, which has moved over the years towards biomedical problems such as Alzheimer’s Disease.  The work on starch just slowly faded out, almost without my noticing.

However, never mind my own personal path, the question must be, is there an optimum strategy for career progression? Let me take the example of that expanding Department of Paintballing, which was being constructed recently, where two thrusting young(ish) individuals are up for promotion. Should one favour the one who has spent 15 years studying the effect of nozzle size and shape on the efficacy of delivery of paint, constantly refining the underlying equations and carrying out simulations of nozzle shapes ranging from circular, through square and hexagonal to cloverleaf before constructing an over-arching equation of such complexity (but possibly also beauty) that it takes up ½ a page in their weighty monograph? Or the one who has studied the distribution of paint on textiles of different sorts upon impact, and the importance of pigment in the paint on accuracy of firing and the role of camouflage in successful team strategies? I suspect by the way I have written those last two sentences you can see where my vote would go, but then I would say that because it is the way I have lived and thrived. Nevertheless, in my role of sitting on the Faculty of War Games promotion panel, that is exactly the sort of decision I would be called upon to make.  And my experience of such promotion panels is that the world is actually fairly equally divided into those, like me, who favour breadth of experience and novelty over extremely elegant research on a narrower topic and those who would cast their vote the other way round.  In other words, there is no right answer, but ‘it depends’. (I wouldn’t want it thought that it frequently comes down to something so crude as breadth versus depth in the way I’ve described; I exaggerate to make the point.)

What must never be missing is originality, a first class publication record, excellent references and attention to detail in the paperwork so that the specific promotion criteria are actually addressed.  Whether you possess diverse interests or not, a crucial requirement is that you make some area your own, carve out a niche so that people can identify you with it. Being broad does not equate to being dilettante, rapidly moving on before making any significant contribution anywhere.   You need to make your mark in each field if it is to count when it comes to progression (though you may have occasional dead-ends of forays that failed; I know I do). Being deep doesn’t mean churning out variations on a theme with little originality beyond the first publication. Whatever the chosen path, your research needs to make a difference. Although I hesitate to use the dreaded impact word, it does need to have impact even if in a purely blue-skies-sort-of-way.

So, for me, I do not for one moment regret my breadth. I get a buzz out of talking to scientists of different colours and hues, now with a smattering of educators, policy makers and even politicians as well thrown into the mix.  I love the challenge of diving into new arenas and trying to get to grips with unfamiliar language. But that doesn’t mean that is the ‘right’ thing to do, and if that feels alien because you are a deep thinker who loves the subtlety of interrogating a particular problem from many directions, then stick with what you do best and specialise. But never, never do something that bores you – move on before that happens. And preferably, never do something that bores your audience either. I will find out later this week if my chameleon tactics of trying to blend into the different communities and keep them amused with my presentations has worked.



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2 Responses to Scientific Breadth: The Good and the Bad

  1. MGG says:

    Very nice blogpost, thank you so much for writing it.

  2. Laurence Cox says:

    If you wanted to cite a single person as an example of scientific breadth, you could choose the Nobel prize-winner Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. It was said of him that he would spend a decade studying a particular topic in astronomy and then write the definitive book on the subject.