This is the first installment of Under the Microscope, an occasional column about Sara Whitlock’s life as a young scientist pursuing a PhD in the biomedical sciences.
PITTSBURGH — When I was in high school, what drew me to science was certainty. What we learned in other classes was open to interpretation, but in science class we learned facts. Water freezes at a specific temperature. Adding salt lowers that temperature. These facts are why we salt our roads in winter.
Six years and one biochemistry degree later, I’ve started graduate school pursuing my PhD in structural biology at the University of Pittsburgh. I’m in my first year trying to juggle biophysics classes and rotations in different laboratories where I’m doing mini projects to learn techniques and design experiments. I’m trying to help my mentor and myself answer bigger questions in our field — how does the shape of a molecule, like a protein or a nucleic acid, determine its function in the body?
Now four months into my PhD, I’m seeing that the certainty that drew me to science doesn’t really exist.
Active research is ambiguous. It’s piles of data sets with contradicting results. It’s mistaken hypotheses and failed experiments. It’s doing three experiments that show the protein I’m studying does one thing, a fourth that shows the exact opposite, and then having to figure out what’s going on, tweak the experiments, and do them all over again.
So while certainty is a nice philosophical construct, in my world I’ll trade in the currency of uncertainty to get my degree. Within the contradictions and troubleshoots of my experiments, I’ll need to string together enough evidence supporting the questions I’ve asked to publish at least a couple of papers. I’ll have to both demonstrate understanding of my field and add new knowledge to move the field forward.
But first I have to finish two years of classes, several rotations to find the lab where I’ll do my research and a mock thesis to “qualify” for Ph.D. studies. Only then can I work, uninterrupted, on my research. And along with every other researcher, I will have to weather an ever-changing funding environment, not knowing what our next president will do to biomedical research.
Funding and experimental uncertainty mean my degree could take four years, or it could take seven.
Tied to this is my research advisor’s reputation, which my work impacts. My success is my advisor’s success, and my failures, when troubleshooting does not work, are my advisor’s failures. This is especially true when the advisor is new in their career. That person’s assessment of me will jump-start my career regardless of where I want to work afterward, but my performance could literally mean the difference between tenure and both of us job hunting in a few years.
It’s a long road, all to produce a paragraph in a textbook that will be revised over and over as the body of scientific knowledge grows.
My task in the next four to six years (hopefully not seven) is to embrace this ambiguity. I have to be uncomfortable. I have to be able to throw out what I know and let new ideas take root.
I’m four months in. I’m no longer naïve when it comes to fact.
As physicist Richard Feynman said, “If we want to solve a problem that we have never solved before, we must leave the door to the unknown ajar.” In this way, I can find certainty. I can help build fact. I can hope to explain a little better how this world works.
Sara Whitlock is a first-year graduate student studying structural biology at the University of Pittsburgh. Her column will appear periodically. That much is certain.