Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Dichotomy of Scientific Research

Eight a.m. consisted of me going through the same checklist that I went through every morning. “Do I have my laptop, jacket, lunch, lab coat….. am I forgetting anything before I walk to lab?” This previous summer I took an internship researching in a toxicology lab and it was a fantastic experience. I would start work at 9, make sure the C. elegans were transferred or egg prepped, and then get into whatever part of the experiment I had going on that day. This was my first time doing research and it was everything that little 7 year old Tanner imagined it to be. White lab coats, sterile gloves, large and expensive machines that I only had a slight idea what they did. I was studying arsenite induced mitochondrial toxicity and was working in a comfortable air-conditioned lab 40 hours a week. I was introduced to different strains of C. elegans, assays, statistical programs, and lab equipment. Everything fit into place to what I imagined doing scientific research would be. After 12 weeks of this, I had come to the realization that it was almost everything that I wanted in a future but it was still lacking and I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. As I packed and got all my equipment ready for my study abroad with OTS I started to imagine what my life was going to be like for the next few months. During this daydreaming of working within the rainforest, I realized that living in a lab was too detached for me. I’ve had a deep love for the environment all my life and while the work I had been doing had broad, important implications, it didn’t feel connected and cohesive enough for me.
            Two months into OTS and boy did my image of what scientific research was change. Our independent project was looking at the relation of 2D:4D ratio to predator avoidance and reproductive investment in Hemidactylus frenatus. Our night would start out at 7 pm and involve me swinging an 8-foot broom around, knocking off geckos from buildings while Natalie or Kiersten caught them in their nets. After about two hours of this, we would individually take pictures of their feet and test their predator avoidance. When we finally got to bed at 4am we would wake up just 4 hours later to start the dissections. Measuring and dissections would take until 6pm, where we stopped for dinner and then prepped for another night of catching. It was as exhausting as it was rewarding once we got the results of our project and saw that there was a correlation between 2D:4D and escape distance in males. What I learned most about this project wasn’t about the geckos but was about how varied scientific research was. It completely broke my mold of what I thought of when I thought of research. I traded my lab coat for rubber boats, goggles for a broom, and nematodes for geckos. Our group would work tirelessly, with no air-conditioning, running after geckos that escaped, and studying larger behavioral and physiological characteristics of these organisms. I don’t believe that this dichotomy between lab work and fieldwork is mutually exclusive from one another because, in fact, there was a lot of overlap between the two. I had come to the realization that this was the missing part to what I was looking for in a future career, the fieldwork aspect. I want to be able to go into the field, collect my own samples, and bring these back to a lab and do research on them. I want to be involved and connected to my environment, not removed. This thought excited me and looking further into this, I talked to a Ph.D. student in the lab I work in back at school. She goes to Latin American and collects blood samples from people in small villages and brings them back for study. While my interests lie in different areas of study than hers, I want my future to encapsulate a similar model involving doing fieldwork, collecting my own data from the field, and then using this in a lab. 
After my summer internship I was feeling unfulfilled about my future in scientific research but this independent project helped me realize that all I was missing was incorporating a field aspect to my work.

Tanner Waters
Duke University

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Tanner: It is very rewarding to read your blog entry and I hope that many students get the itch to get out of their comfort zone as you did and try something that may change their lives and perspectives. I'm glad to read that a little bit of La Selva got "under your skin" (hopefully not literally) and that you got the bug of field work.
    Thank you for sharing your experience.