[A message from the editor: a while ago I had a few words to say to my younger self, thanks to the wonders of hindsight! This week, we have a guest blog from Ulrike Träger, who also has a few things she’d like to point out to her younger, PhD student, self.]
Maybe I am getting old or its impending motherhood, but I am finally realizing that nobody can make it on their own. Not in science. Not anywhere else.
And I wish I knew this earlier.
Starting my PhD, eight years or what feels like a lifetime ago, I was convinced a good scientist is someone who knows everything. The literature in their field. The methods needed. How to interpret their data all the time. To prove your worth as a scientist you have to be able to do it all. Alone.
Having supervised many students since, from short rotation stints in the lab to PhD students, I believe a lot of young aspiring scientists think the same thing. It’s easy to see why. When you are young and inexperienced, everyone seems to know more than you. And so they should. Your supervisors have worked on this particular research topic for years; they have worked in the lab for even longer. They should know more than you. But that does not mean they know it all. Nobody does and nobody needs to.
Over the years I have noticed that the best scientists – the ones that do great work, publish well and seem to know it all – have an open mind. They know that they do not know it all. They listen to new ideas. May it be in talks or when a student comes to them with a new technique. The smartest people I know aren’t afraid to ask for help and advice. They have a broad network of colleagues and science friends they discuss their work with. Because sometimes, and I am sure all scientists have been there, when you have worked on a certain aspect for weeks on end you lose track of the bigger picture. The view of an outsider can make all the difference. For example, one of the last experiments for my PhD was trying to prove that two molecules interact with each other via immunoprecipitation. I just did not get it to work as I simply had not enough material for reliable and repeatable results. Complaining about this to a fellow student, he told me about this new technique combining microscopy and high throughput flow cytometry. With his help, I was able to track down the relevant machine and get the experiment done with the limited input material I had. It was a glorious day. (Or weeks counting the repeat experiments.)
The important thing is that this is how we learn. Nobody expects you to just pick up reading or math. No, we go to school, for years, and we learn by listening to people and more importantly by asking questions. Sure you can learn from reading – but why not ask your colleagues? They may have had the same problem and will be quicker to help you than Google. One way of implementing this is using lab meetings to the effect of troubleshooting rather than simply showing off the best results, neglecting the 20+ things that did not work in the last few months. My current lab actually has a very interesting set up in that regard. In each lab meeting, every person quickly tells everyone what they did the past week and if anything went wrong. That way, problems can be picked up early and you can learn from each other. I found it really helpful.
So what I wish I had known all these years ago? That it saves time to ask for advice. That it takes courage but is worth it. As a supervisor, I have worked much better with students asking for advice. I take asking as interest and therefore like to help them! I wish I had realized that this is how we learn. And that being seen as a scientist who knows it all comes with experience – all by itself. At least in the eyes of the next generation.
Ulrike is a post-doc at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg. Her research focuses on the development of immune cells in different tissues. She shares her love of immunology and what it is like to be a scientist on her blog Immunoblogist and on Twitter.