The Excitable Scientist

Mostly cheerful, sometimes snarky commentary on life science research and its broader impacts

Not a letdown July 30, 2011

Filed under: career,undergrad — excitablescientist @ 5:41 pm

For a long time, I’ve been thinking about how to write a “perfect” first blog entry; so far, this approach has not yielded fruit.  Instead, I thought I’d share an anecdote which illustrates the problem of valuing certain types of research above others, something I plan to expand on in future posts.


A few acquaintances and I were huddled over a recent discovery published in one of the science GlamourMags.  A compound from a natural source was found to be extraordinarily effective against a certain disease target, with minimal effects on nondiseased tissues.  The fact that this compound exists in nature reminded someone of a friend’s science fair project from high school – which involved testing the potential of a panel of natural compounds to treat a different disease.  This work was carried out in a well-respected university lab and won a prestigious award in a country-wide competition.  Since then, the student has opted not to pursue further training in biomedical research, but instead decided that it would be more rewarding to study the phenomena of health and disease on a global rather than microscopic scale, in a different faculty.  Upon hearing this, another person blurted out, “what a letdown”.


This struck a chord with me.  I did not understand why it was so disappointing that somebody interested in health science would choose to pursue a career in a related field, even if it means saying goodbye to fancy molecular techniques.  At our university, pursuing an undergraduate degree in certain faculties (like Science and Engineering) is disproportionately valued relative to others, which tackle similar problems from different angles, often using lower tech, more widely applicable approaches.  This really upsets me.


One stated reason for the relative prestige afforded to Science degrees is the high admission average required to get into this faculty.  The assumption there is that if somebody chooses a faculty with a lower minimum admission average, it was probably because they weren’t smart enough to be admitted to/succeed in Science.  This, I think, is pure garbage.  Minimum admission averages are entirely dependent on the ratio of applicants vs. seats in a program, and people should feel free to pursue courses of study that best reflect their own interests and aptitudes.  In some years, so many people apply to smaller programs (e.g. Forestry) that the admission average becomes higher than that for Science.  Does that automatically devalue a Science degree?  Of course not.


I have tremendous respect for the faculty chosen by the student in question.  It is small and has a strong sense of community, which seems to be fertile ground for nurturing interdisciplinary thinkers.  My friends in said faculty amaze me with their broad understanding of biochemistry, how it relates to nutrition, agriculture practices… all incredibly relevant in an increasingly resource-constrained world.  Their science courses are rigorous, but they learn so much more beyond the molecular world – they actually understand how it applies to real life!  I have on more than one occasion felt an overwhelming sense of inadequacy when confronted with the stark reality of the narrow scope of my own studies.  As additional evidence for the quality of students produced by this faculty, I pointed out that this year, our province’s recipient of an extremely prestigious international scholarship is one of its graduates.


In summary, this post has been a long-winded way of saying that I don’t think a career in biomedical research should be regarded as the only acceptable path for a talented high school science student.  It is never a letdown if someone decides to pursue a career that is fulfilling to them and that has potential to change the world for the better.  There is, in my view, no correlation between the level of sophistication (read: obscurity) of techniques used to study a particular field, and the field’s impact on the world.  There are countless discoveries about life and health to be made without invoking the use of microscopes or thermocyclers, and lower tech approaches will likely be part of the most cost-effective solutions to health problems that burden the world’s populations.


3 Responses to “Not a letdown”

  1. Totally agree Sonja… I have noticed similar biases held between different health professionals and researchers (ie. nurses vs. doctors vs. social workers or quantitative vs. qualitative health researchers). They are missing the opportunity to learn from thers – respecting other people’s experiences and valuing different ways of knowing is so important, and we need interdisciplinary thinkers (as well as open-minded experts and specialists) to tackle complex problems like human health, right?

  2. vwxynot Says:

    Great first post! I totally agree with you that field-snobbery is an incredibly blinkered approach. We need all hands (and brains) on deck!

  3. Jason, you said it! I find the frequent bias of scientists against qualitative research particularly troubling…. not all variables can be measured and expressed in numerical form. I really disagree with the oft-used approach of converting qualitative findings into numbers, subjecting those to statistical analysis, and then trying to draw meaningful conclusions.

    Cath, thanks! 🙂 All brains on deck is a great way to put it.

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