Sunday, August 5, 2012

Lessons taught by science and absorbed oh so slowly...

I was 24 and in my third year of the Neuroscience graduate program at U. California, San Francisco. Attending my first international conference, I was staying in a hotel on an island in the Netherlands. My roommate was an experienced psychology researcher. She was in her 60s or 70s, but I just knew I was better than she was. In so many ways.

First, she moved slowly. She didn't make decisions quickly, wasn't quick to speak or quick to judge. It took her some lounging time in the room to decide which talks to attend. Hah! I already knew the answer. All of them!

Second, she was soft. I could see the lack of muscle tone in her face and body. She moved gracefully, like a dancer, and she didn't necessarily seem to want to get where she was going any faster than she wanted to leave her original spot. She smiled a lot, laughed easily. She deeply underestimated, it seemed to me, the seriousness of it all. The Importance of Science. What a waste!

Third and most damning, she believed in observational research. The one thing I remember her saying to me with any seriousness was her response to my statement that so many of the talks seemed to lack hypotheses and were merely "fishing expeditions" -- a derogatory phrase I'd copied from my mentors at UCSF. She looked at me patiently and said in what must have been a well-measured tone, "My dear, exploratory research is under-rated. You will discover that for yourself someday." At that moment, one part of me looked at her in disgust and dismissed her entirely. Another part, much less stupid, held onto the wisdom and wondered if she was right.

Of course, she was right. Not only about exploratory research, but about all three flaws my earlier self spotted in her. Taking her time, being vulnerable, and observing. Of course. All three traits describe many Nobel laureates in science as well as many un-sung heroes in the academic world. They are traits that allow you to see what is before you and to choose a useful experiment that can help you discover something new.

This post is dedicated to my wise and very patient roommate, may she rest in peace.

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