On Stress in Biomedical Research

When a paper in Molecular Cell starts with

Science, this very creative human endeavor to understand the nature of the reality that exists independently of ourselves, is impossible. By “impossible,” I am not saying “very, very difficult,” although it is that, as well.

you just know you’re in for a treat.

He lists 6 things to remember when stressed, but I identified most with the first:

Thing #1. You Are Not in Control of the Answers

I contend that this is one of the greatest sources of stress in our professional lives. As scientists, we don’t ask for much: we want to have some good ideas (see #2), design some good experiments, do the experiments, and have some of them work. We’ll trade fast cars, flat screen TVs, big houses, and large bank accounts for even the chance of this, and if our experiments work, we are (albeit briefly) happy, and all is right with the world. But we know from wretched experience that most of what we try doesn’t work, and this stresses us out.

There is an important reason for this failure of perfectly logical ideas to translate into results, and it will be helpful to get this out of the way first. Life is not logical, because living things are not designed. Any biological system is a cobbled-together, makeshift affair that once upon a time happened to work better than some other contraption, so that it was reproduced and subsequently built upon. All biology in this view of life is an historical accident. And it is for this reason (among others, as we will see) that our experiments so often fail. Life does not yield to logic.

The whole piece is available for free, and highly worth reading. It might not be *quite* as relevant to those of you that aren’t in a research field, but I think there is something for everyone there. Now excuse me – I need to go read Through the Looking Glass.

Comments

  1. #1 Hannah Waters
    November 10, 2010

    That last paragraph is incredible. I can’t wait to read the whole thing when I’m less tired. Everyone in my lab should read it too (from how it sounds thus far).

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