I suspect there comes a point in everyone’s
life when they start to wonder if they are spending their days well
and if whatever they are toiling away at is really worth the effort. For the most part, it probably gets marked down as “middle age angst”, apathy, or something similar and people
make a few changes and then plough on, much as before. In science, though, the answers matter because what "we" as a society chose to fund and what "we" as individual scientists chose to prioritise can really affect the future of mankind. The potential is always there for any individual scientist to change the world for the better.
Even though my scientific career has not been all that long, I have been a lot of scientific conferences and I have come away from some of them feeling that the most important things for mankind are not always those receiving highest priority.
Today’s post, then, is just a question- “what do you think matters to
mankind?” “Which questions and problems should scientists/mankind be
trying to answer most urgently?”
For what it is worth, the picture below is doodle from my notebook-
my own crude, first-draft attempt to answer these questions (in no particular order- click to enlarge). What would you prioritise?
I don’t claim to be qualified
enough to attempt to answer that question, or comment upon Dr Rulison’s ideas,
but they do make interesting reading.
On a lighter note, pictures have
now emerged of a baby pygmy hippo born in early September in Zurich zoo. The print
version of The Telegraph newspaper had a wonderful photograph of it, but I can’t
find this online. You can see a video of the baby hippo here- (WARNING: this
video has music)
Some years ago (circa 1999/2000),
when I was still a microbiologist and busily looking for a PhD studentship, I was
interviewed for a project looking at virulence in foot-and-mouth disease. Over
the course of the interview, it became apparent that the project would,
essentially, involve devoting three years of my life to examining a small
section of RNA at one end of the Virus’s genome and culminate- in all
probability- in a single scientific paper on the subject. The aim was to
investigate which mutations caused the virus to become more deadly/virulent and
which, less so. If I remember correctly, the section of RNA to be examined was only
around 100-bases long and it seemed such a tiny specialization that, at that point- mid interview- my interest in the project nose-dived. Perhaps that was shallow or superficial, but it is probably not a unique experience.
As students, we are taught in summary and we view the bigger picture. But, as a researcher, one toils every day on a tiny piece often of a tiny puzzle; each day of research is just a drop in the ocean of a research career and that is a drop in the wider ocean of science itself. It is easy to sit, absolutely rapt, in
lectures about virology, to marvel at the ingenuity of past microbiologists
and to be excited by the prospect of working
on similar puzzles. The problem, is that reality- in the form of
various doctoral projects- often does not seem to match up. For this reason, the most enthusiastic
students do not always make the most eager researchers.
On the other hand, being funded to spend three years working on a project that does capture your imagination, is a really wonderful experience. For my part, I switched
to zoology, studied jellyfish and spent three and a half awesome, globe-trotting years working on about a dozen different species.
Incidentally, a couple of
years after that foot-and-mouth PhD interview, the UK suffered a very costly, widespread
and fairly unexpected foot-and-mouth outbreak. So, whoever did get that studentship
must have taken some pleasure in the fact that their project, although narrow
in focus, has undoubtedly proven useful- arguably, far more useful for mankind than my own doctoral research, but that is another issue altogether...
You can find more on foot-and-mouth
disease [here] and on black death [here]. The full-text of the scientific study
on black death mentioned above is currently available free online [here].
Thank you for visiting my blog. Like many people, I have been fascinated by the natural world all my life. After completing a degree in microbiology and a doctorate in zoology, I worked for five years as a research biologist and another three as a freelance science writer, magazine columnist and nature photographer.
I am currently employed at The University of Namur, in Belgium as a Research Scientist and Lecturer (maître des conferences) in Science Communication.
I have two blogs- "Weirdbeautiful", which I update and write myself, and "Victoria Neblik Art", which is usually updated for me. If you want to see more of my work, I also have regular interview columns in "Practical Reptile Keeping" Magazine and “Small Furry Pets” Magazine, some videos on youtube and several books in various stages of the publication process.
You can contact me through my website- http://www.victorianeblik.com.