45 Things I’ve Learned about Science Since I was a Student

Editor’s note: At Your Wild Life we like to do public science, science in which we open the process of scientific discovery so that you can be a part of it. Sometimes that means citizen science. Other times it means science as art. And then there is today — today we are sharing with you Rob’s thoughts about some of the things no one tells you about being a faculty member, a scholar at a university. Maybe there are some insights in here about broader life, but certainly this list contains insights about the differences between how we imagine discovery as young scientists and what it comes to resemble as we grow into the job. All of this is to say, public science has many facets, and here is one you probably don’t see very often.

1-The most clever people I know claim, in age, to have had only a handful of good ideas which must mean most things that seem like good ideas are either minor or wrong.
2-Most things are unknown. No one remembers that.
3-Most things are unknown.
4-Most people are happy to pretend to be stumbling toward the truth. It is enough to get by on, to feed oneself.
5-Most real challenges scientists have to deal with have nothing to do with science.
6-Half of the time, the real practical scientific challenges can be solved with better policies and old science.
7-The other half of the time, we are too stupid to even know which new science is useful to solve the challenges.
8-The worst thing is crappy basic science masquerading as application. The introduction to most papers is this worst thing and when it isn’t that is just because it has been supplanted by the last paragraph of the discussion.
9-If you assert that your field is relevant to some application, for example that biodiversity matters to ecosystem function, then be ready to prove it.
10-Being married to an anthropologist who studied indigenous tribes is useful for considering academic departments.
11-If you find yourself in an argument in which you feel like a monkey grabbing for cake, go for a walk. Decide if you really want the cake. Decide also where you rank among the monkeys. Maybe go for a walk again. When you come back you will probably realize that the cake wasnt so good to start with. Also one of your colleagues has probably since peed in the cake.
12-When you start as a faculty member the scene in Richard Russos book “Straight Man” where a faculty member is standing by the university pond saying something to the effect of “If I dont get what I need in the department, I am going to kill this duck,” seems too outlandish even for a novel. The key to that sentence is, “When you start…”
13-After being convinced that often the best solution is to do things the sensible way, it becomes clear that the truth is that, if you have the money, it is way better to do things once, the very best way.
14-Help junior people, postdocs, and students who need help, ask for it, and seem likely to go on to great success (or to avert great failure). Hire people no one has given a chance. Give them one.
15-More scientists than you can imagine hope to someday win a Nobel Prize or do science that lasts forever and yields permanent and transformative truths. Sometimes you will hear them say these things, other times you can catch the scent of such ambition in the way they stand. A few achieve these desires and we laud them, write stories about their clever vision. Most retire regretful, mumbling about how everyone misread their great papers.
16-A great idea is like a rare bird. Sometimes it will pause before you. Take it in. Dont try to call it by name. It is a thrill that might not come often. Even if the idea proves to be wrong, you wont know it at first and so enjoy that thrill. Enjoy it as though, as a consequence of the idea, everything might change.
17-The things I think make the most difference in science I wont tell you because I might still be wrong, though if I am right they are the things I wish someone would have told me when I was younger.
18-If you are very young, 1800 seems like a long time ago. It was yesterday. And in 1800, we knew nothing about science. This is what they will say in 3014 about 2014 and in 4014 about 3014. When it comes to making sense of it all, we are four short steps ahead of the chimps and think we have it all figured out.
19-The reason that your parents dont understand what you do is not because they “dont get it,” it is because you “havent explained it,” or are studying something too obscure or boring.
20-I dont know which ones, but Ill bet that at least four of the organs in human bodies are still totally misunderstood.
21-When you go through a phase when great ideas arent landing near you, review what we know. See what is missing, look for the things everyone assumes to be true and poke at them. If they seem soft, poke again. If someone says “that was figured out a hundred years ago” and you cant find the old papers that figured it out, know you are on to something.
22-Some of the old, emeritus faculty that stalk your building were probably the most admired stars in some field several decades ago. A few will die when you arent watching and when they do you will realize they were people you should have asked a lot of questions. To note though…. Other emeritus faculty are just older versions of the same cake-grabbing young colleagues you see everyday.
23-Fruit flies and lab rats are fine if you remember that they are either a starting point for studying wild flies and rats or a really crappy model for the human body.
24-No one knows anything about the biology of wild fruit flies (people are starting to study wild mice)
25-Before you complain that funding is terrible, disappearing, the end of civil society, know the history of the funding agencies you are complaining about.
26-It isnt pleasant, but part of your job is to think about what the incentives of other people (deans, chancellors, department heads, students, colleagues, etc… ) are. Even when no one is trying to trick you, everyone is trying to make his or her own life a little easier or more promising, as you should be as well.
27-Everyone tends to blame administrative problems on evil-doing. The far more common explanation is incompetence (My dean told me this).
28-If you get biologists outside looking at the things they love, they become different (better) people. Find excuses to get them outside.
29-You can learn from someone you dont respect. You just feel bad about it later.
30-If you want an exciting job surround yourself with people who are smarter than you about some things if not most things. If you want a good life surround yourself with friends. If you are really lucky, you can do both.
31-In ancient Alexandria, the museum was the place where scholars gathered and were given food and drink to figure out the world. Think about this the next time you are at “Nacho Hut” complaining about your start-up package.
32-With time you will become an expert both in things that you want to be an expert in and those you dont care to be one in. Hide the latter.
33-There are tens of thousands of great ideas in books and papers that no one has ever followed up on. If you are lucky, you will have six of you own great ideas. The odds favor reading old books and papers to improve your chances of working on something novel. If you no longer have old books and old papers in your library, try to read just outside your area of research. Maybe it’ll help you if you do know something about the C cycle after all.
34-Know why you do science the way you do. It is probably because it is the way your advisor did it. If it is, explore other approaches or at the very least acknowledge that your choice of approaches is entirely contingent on your personal past.
35-Again, love the rare birds of what you do. It is OK to begrudge the sparrow of ordinary days, but your heart should skip when the Motmot lands on your bench and flits its tail.
36-Remember to explain to the fruit fly people that the Motmot is a kind of bird that flits its tail.
37-It doesnt take many years before the students you taught in your first year come back to visit having established themselves as adults. Some great students go on to do great things. So do some terrible students.
38-A diversity of perspectives and people makes science better, in your lab, in your department, in your college. It allows you to see things you would miss, see them from perspectives you didnt have and see questions you didnt realize need answers.
39-It is easier to learn if you are around people who know different things than you.
40-Faculty, even after having been faculty for a while, are still struggling with many of the same challenges they were dealing with when they were younger, such as what they want to do with their lives.
41-Maximize your efficiency, the number of interesting people you surround yourself with, and the number of times you smile. If the number of interesting people or number of smiles begin to decrease, figure out how to change it.
42-Seek mentors outside your department, university, and past training. As you get older, you will have fewer mentors and, ironically, may want mentoring more.
43-Listen to advice. Seek advice. If you ignore advice, choose to do so consciously and understand why you have done so.
44-More senior faculty will assume you know what you are doing unless you ask for advice (which you should do) or begin to so obviously fail that it is too late.
45-The more interesting your ideas, the harder it will become to find anyone to tell whether they are brilliant or mad.
By | 2016-11-22T13:46:53+00:00 November 18th, 2014|

About the Author:

Rob Dunn
Rob Dunn is a biologist and writer in the Department of Applied Ecology at North Carolina State University. Central to all of his work is the sense that big discoveries lurk not only in faraway tropical forests, but also in our backyards and even bedrooms. The unknown is large and wonderful and Dunn and his collaborators, students, and postdocs love to spend their days in it.

5 Comments

  1. […] Dunn lists 45 things that he’s learned about science since he was a student. My […]

  2. […] Dunn lists 45 things that he’s learned about science since he was a student. My […]

  3. […] 45 things I’ve learned about science since I was a student, by Rob Dunn. Knowing these things matters. Staying conscious of these things when it matters is even more important. Pretty much the best set of advice for science and life as a scientist I can recall ever reading. […]

  4. […] couple of weeks ago, Terry McGlynn linked to this post on 45 Things I’ve Learned about Science since I was a Student by Rob Dunn. One of the post’s points really struck me: “Most real challenges scientists have […]

  5. Lachlan December 19, 2014 at 7:18 am - Reply

    I laughed out loud numerous times whilst reading this. Great article!

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