The Courage to Venture Beyond: Of Polymaths and Multidisciplinarians

Jul 9, 2015

by Jalees Rehman

“Focus! Focus! Focus! Create a narrow area of scientific expertise in which you excel and develop a national or international reputation for excellence!”

Established scientists often share this sort of advice with their younger peers who are about to embark on their academic career. It isn’t a bad advice and I have known many scientists who have succeeded in academia by following it. Every day, more than a thousand original scientific papers are published. A major aspect of scientific research is placing your own findings into context of already existing knowledge. How is your work different from what is already known? What impact will your work have in your scientific field? Have you developed a new tool or concept that will be of significant value to your peers? To engage in cutting-edge research therefore requires that one stays abreast of the amassing scientific literature, carefully curating which of the numerous published findings are most relevant to one’s own work.

A scientist with too broad of an area of scientific expertise or too many distinct scientific interests may drown in the ocean of newly generated knowledge. Keeping up with the scientific literature and actively conducting experiments in multiple scientific disciplines may  take up so much effort that it leaves little time and resources to dig deeply and unearth high-impact knowledge in any one area.

Some scientists devote decades of research to studying a single protein in a cell. Considering the complexity of biological phenomena, a single protein X can supply a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of research questions. How is the synthesis of the protein regulated? Which molecular pathways lead to the degradation of the protein? Which are the proteins that interact with X? Are there specific environmental signals which control the expression of the gene which is transcribed and translated into protein X? How does a transgenic mouse behave when protein X levels are over-expressed in selected organs or tissues? Answering each one of these questions by carefully interrogating all the detailed molecular mechanisms involved can take several years. A scientist who uses her creativity and perseverance in order to develop unique molecular tools and animal models to address these questions will likely receive national or international recognition and a steady stream of research funding for her expertise in all matters relating to protein X.

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5 comments on “The Courage to Venture Beyond: Of Polymaths and Multidisciplinarians

  • One of the many things I find amazing about Alan Turing was the way he could just shift gears and go from working on something totally theoretical to engineering problems and then back. Towards the end of his life he completely shifted focus and was doing some very fascinating work in biology. Well it seems fascinating from what I understand of it which is not much, I understand his math and CS stuff pretty well but I’ve tried reading his paper on biology a couple times and just get lost. But I did read… in fact it was published here a while back… that some modern biologists did experiments that confirmed some of his ideas. Its something I would like to see Dawkins write about if he can ever lay off tweeting for a while. I think the main idea is to find some fundamental mathematical principles that explain why there is so much uniformity in the diverse forms of life.

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  • I find what you say about underlying mathematical principals in nature fascinating Red Dog, because one our daughters is a Biophysics Research Assistant, and is carrying out a mathematical analysis of part of the human immune system.

    For my part I can only hazard a guess at what that might entail, but who knows, she might stumble upon something hitherto unknown.

    But even if she doesn’t, she thoroughly enjoys her work, which in itself makes me happy.

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  • Agrajag
    Jul 9, 2015 at 10:20 pm

    “Specialization … learning more and more about less and less, until eventually one knows everything about nothing”

    . . . and as more and more of their time is focussed on the area of less and less, they progressively spend no time on other matters, losing touch with the understanding of everything else!
    Perhaps this explains the “scientists” who are famed for expertise in some very specialist field, but resort to the gapologist god-did-it of NOMA to the applause of theologians on wider issues!

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