As you might remember in my Magic and Science post I talked about how the progress of science discoveries have many similarities with Magic. I think is pretty nice to give people an idea of what doing science may mean. Definitely it’s not something easy to convey, but I’ll give it another try today with a curious analogy of the laboratory activity and cooking at home.
If you don’t know what an average molecular biologist does in his/her lab, don’t worry, it might be more familiar than you think. Everyday, most likely, you eat food that you have cooked previously, and during the process you undergo many phases common to scientific research in the bio-lab.
First of all you plan what to eat. Planning your work is a big deal in the lab: you have to make sure to have all the ingredients, to have the tools and instruments at hands when you will need them and you have to make sure you know what you are doing. Of course, unless you are very familiar with what you are going to prepare, you might need a recipe, better known as protocol in a lab. A protocol, either provided by a company, for some products, or created by the laboratory, for more ad-hoc experiments, gives you all the instructions to yield a “perfect” result. As very often happens also in the kitchen, the perfect result is far away from reality.
While cooking you may follow the recipe literally or approximately and this may lead to different results depending of your experience. This is also another aspect of lab research: most of the time you want to talk to people with more expertise for advices and guidance. Another aspect of cooking that it’s often ignored is the imagination. Cooking for many people is an form of art, and that’s because it gives freedom in many circumstances to go more or less wild with your imagination. Creativity and entrepreneurship is an important skill for a lab researcher as well. The process of science progress doesn’t rely on following a recipe (even if perfectly) but relies mostly on innovative approaches to investigate problems from new point of views.
At the end of the cooking phase, what you might want to do is to “analyze your result”, most often by eating your creation and appreciating the taste. In the lab the taste phase in the form of eating is very rare, but it takes the form of sitting at a desk and banging your head over what you did and why what turns out to be the output of your experiment is what it is. This process, analogously to the kitchen, is essential to gain new insights on your skill, in the process you’re studying and on what can be done next time to improve your doing.
Cooking, to people who studied a cooking school or course but also to people who learned it for hobby or necessity, may require a lot of “hard skills”, i.e. know how to cut, when, how and how long to cook and how to serve. It’s impressive how many years you might have to exercise to excell in cooking. The same can be said for biologists that at the end of their bachelors, masters and phDs are barely at the beginning of their learning curve.
As you know, hard skills are not everything. You have to know what you are preparing, which ingredients are the best and what combination of tastes are worth investigating to create a good dish. That’s what is also needed in research, hard skills go together with knowledge and soft skill, such as statistical know-how and team-working abilities to be a complete profile.
Quite impressive right?? While everybody can cook and enjoy it, few people decide that they want to be the chefs of science, learning a new set of skills just to push a little forward their field of knowledge. Next time you cook your meal, pause a little and think that every action you do has an equivalent in someone’s lab; and that every time you cry while cutting an onion, a researcher is crying to understand what is wrong whit his/her data. Let me tell you another story..