Over the years science has changed a great deal. In just the last 50 years or so we’ve seen a major revolution in scientific research, due primarily to our understanding of DNA and ultimately how it codes for protein. But there have been quite a few changes even in the 12 or 13 years since I received my Ph.D. One of these changes, which I would like to address in this blog, relates to the way that science is done. More specifically, the way in which science is done by today’s Ph.D. students.
I hope, dear reader, that you will not already have tired of my reminiscences of what it was like when I was a Ph.D. student. If you have, I suggest you either logout now, or take a deep breath and read on.
If you got this far, then either curiosity got the better of you, or you haven’t read too many of my blogs. In any event, as a Ph.D. student in the 1990s, I was expected to master various techniques in the course of my studies. In my case, it was a combination of some work with mice, a lot of protein biochemistry, and some very standard and basic sub-cloning techniques. I spent an awful lot of time working on different types of two dimensional gel electrophoresis; in other words separating proteins both by size (molecular weight) and by charge, or alternatively by size and whether or not the proteins were linked by disulfide bonds.
As a principal investigator now, and a mentor of graduate students, I see that things have changed considerably. The students of today need to utilize many more techniques than I did in order to progress. It is not uncommon for a student who is versed in biochemical techniques to also have to learn various physiological/cell biological assays that might be outside his/her “comfort zone”. A lot of this has to do with the ‘globalization of science’, and the arrival of the kits on the scene.
These kits are both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, they really do allow students to rapidly employ a huge arsenal of techniques that simply would not be possible without a simplified ready-to-use system available. On the other hand, it appears that many students–perhaps anxious to take advantage of these kits as quickly as possible–do not really make an attempt to understand the science behind them.
Unfortunately, this has led in some cases to students who are basically “buying science”. What I mean by this is that some of the most fundamental and important elements in the students’ scientific education are being lost. For example, I’ve come across students who have performed one of the most basic cell biology/biochemistry experiments–the immunoprecipitation of proteins with antibodies–with such kits. For those who are not familiar, this is a very basic technique where one uses a specific antibody to pull down and precipitate a specific protein from a cell lysate.
For those lacking experience with this basic technique, these kits are perceived as an easy way out. They contain pre-prepared lysis buffer to break up the cells and make a lysate from which the immunoprecipitation can be done. Instructions are given, but the rationale for each step is lacking. The problem is that there really isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” lysis buffer and system for immunoprecipitation. The concentration of salt can be critical, as can the choice of detergent used to make micelles from the membranes, as well as a host of other factors that can also be of importance. I find that some of the students have absolutely no clue what’s contained within these magic buffers, and of course this precludes any possibility of troubleshooting, should the experiment not succeed. So the rapid progress that can be attained with pre-prepared kits and solutions comes with a price–students who are no longer masters of their own research.
But is it all really bad? Not necessarily. If students and researchers are aware of these potential pitfalls, and at least stay technically conversant with some of the most fundamental techniques used, then the age of the kits can actually propel research forward quite rapidly.
A PI and his students become almost like a child in a candy store; all the techniques are available–one only needs money to pay for them. In fact, this has become the age of outsourcing in science. When I began my Ph.D., researchers were still carrying out cumbersome DNA sequencing reactions in their own laboratories. Today, no scientist worth his/her salt (sorry, another awful pun) would waste time doing this. It’s all sent out to companies or sequencing facilities at the university itself.
So, one possibility is that laboratories will decline in size over time. The researchers; PI, postdocs and Ph.D. students will all need to spend more time thinking, more time reading, more time figuring out which new assays will be applicable to the research; how to best spend the money to get “the most research for the buck.” There will be less work at the bench, and more thought given to which kits to order and what work to outsource and to whom.
Is this a scary scenario? I don’t necessarily see it that way; I think that as long as researchers maintain a firm grasp key number of scientific techniques, it’s probably a good development for science. The better students adapt and learn, and the better mentors ensure that their students understand the technical concepts of the science that they carry out. After all, many of us scientists firmly believe that critical thinking is the key component of graduate education. And there’s no reason that this element should be lessened in the new age of science.
How about some “Yays and nays” from the other side of the pond?