by MERLIN CROSSLEY
I’m a reductionist.
In science focussing, reducing a problem to its components, then varying one tiny thing at a time, works.
Reductionism has triumphed in genetics. We’ve moved from vague notions of inheritance to realising that genes act like indivisible components (beads on a string), to understanding the actual DNA string and defining a gene in chemical terms. Step by step, biology has morphed into chemistry.
Reductionism, varying one thing at a time, is powerful, in its place. Without it, it is hard to separate correlation from cause. It’s too easy to ascribe an outcome to the wrong input. You can generate a lot of data without generating a lot of knowledge – as Sydney Brenner put it – one can end up doing “low-input, high throughput, no-output biology.”
When I was a student I learnt about the “one gene, one protein” hypothesis – which is still useful in teaching genetics (despite myriad exceptions that prove the rule!) Later, as I was finishing up as a postdoc, I learnt another rule – “one gene, one job”.
I was advised to delay starting my own lab until I had identified a new gene to focus on. I found a gene repressor called KLF3, and subsequently spent many happy years studying its expression, structure and function, partner proteins, molecular mechanism of action, and the effects of knocking it out in mice. From focussed experiments we generated general principles.
These days it is harder to get funding for one gene but it is still important to focus to get answers. These days I’d fall back on a similar recommendation – either study one thing (a gene) or one process (biological pathway/disease/technique etc).
You have to be an expert in something. You need to have an identity, a home, a focus, in order to get on top of things.
But shouldn’t one be broad and multi-disciplinary? Shouldn’t one aim to be the first person who looks more widely and brings things together, uniting disciplines and integrating knowledge? Shouldn’t we enlist multidisciplinary teams, garnering support from everyone – that can be a lot of support!
Yes, yes, yes, if you are interested in implementation and delivery, rather than scientific problem solving. You need a broad, multi-disciplinary team to fight a pandemic. But the best implementation teams include experts. You need an expert focussed on vaccines for that part of the problem.
So here’s another question – should emerging academics focus solely on research, or do research and teaching, or spread themselves evenly across teaching, research and administration?
This one is too easy – it just depends on who you are.
Some people are born researchers, some are born teachers, some like management, some enjoy all three.
By the time an academic is finished with their degrees and post-doctoral training they probably know what’s in their DNA – education isn’t just about learning things, it’s about learning about one’s own strengths and weaknesses. It’s fine if people change as their life unfolds. But my advice is that people should decide for themselves which instrument they want to play in the orchestra, and institutions should provide the opportunities and support.
But focus, focus, focus – if you are everywhere, you are nowhere. If you try to do everything, you end up doing nothing.
So what happens in reality?
Well, focussing is much harder than many people expect.
It involves saying no to opportunities and saying no to people. It involves “commitment anxiety.” It forces you to put all your eggs in one basket. It makes you look narrow. It seems old-fashioned. It feels risky.
But it is the way to climb mountains, one step at a time. If we want people to discover the things that lie above the low hanging fruit, managers have to support people for the long haul – just as good mentors support their students and postdocs to commit and take risks, to walk the long road to success.
Without proper support and the right institutional culture it is very hard to achieve great things. One can do the little things and look productive but it is hard to make the much longed for “paradigm shifts.”
The ladder going straight up to the high hanging fruit can be lonely, and you need someone holding it steady at the base. With that it is possible to reach heights that have never been reached before.
Professor Merlin Crossley
Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and Student Life