Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Scientific Whiplash

It just occurred to me, that as one goes through secondary and undergraduate education in science, The pace at which new ideas are uncovered is absolutely breakneck. Now I'm not complaining about moving too quickly in lectures; in fact, sometimes I wish they'd speed up and I didn't have to hear about 'how DNA is an anti-parallel double-stranded helix' for the umpteenth time at the beginning of every single class.

No, what I mean is it's breakneck compared to graduate education. Again, I need to include a disclaimer: I don't think that graduate school is easier or involves less learning than undergraduate. It's just that in graduate school, new ideas (to the student) are revealed less and less frequently. This is because graduate school in science is the shift from a focus on learning theory to learning research techniques. After two years or so, you stop taking classes altogether.

So the halt in discovery of new ideas is because you start running out of new ideas that have already been discovered by somebody else, and instead have to start making these new discoveries yourself. And anybody who has worked in a laboratory or in the field knows that making these discoveries takes a considerable amount of time: months, even years. In contrast, as an undergrad, you are exposed to an entire biosynthetic pathway--something that probably took decades to work out--in a matter of minutes.

I suppose what I am trying to say is that I am truly grateful for all those scientists who came before me and spent so much time and made those discoveries so that I can learn them in a much shorter period of time. And in return, or perhaps I'm paying it forward, I will eventually get a PhD and contribute some real original research.

1 comment:

swansont said...

The early part of your education compresses many years of discoveries into a course, but while doing your research the comparison is basically real-time.

I think it's also a function of narrowing the scope of your inquiry. As you transition into your own research, all of the things you learn will be more closely related and the discoveries perhaps more subtle. But you should also be reading journals that were not part of your regimen as an undergrad or early part of grad school prior to choosing a research area, and there should be a lot of things to learn there.