Do mouse people talk outside their group? Do you?

Creativity research says to reach outside your group to come up with innovative ideas. I’ve written before on this topic, referencing Burt‘s work on structural holes and who is at risk for a new idea. Right now I’m at Janelia Farms, the research campus of Howard Hughes Medical Institute, HHMI. It is in suburban Virginia near Dulles Airport. Many people in this conference called “Life in the aggregate” work on mice or flies, but there is a really impressive variety of other organisms, from worms to fish, from cowbirds to primates to social amoebae. I bet the organizers are successful in encouraging new contacts and even collaborations. But right now I want to talk about mice, or the mouse community.

Mice are a really important model system for all kinds of medical things. They have genes which are knocked out and can exhibit all kinds of human pathologies in ways that are studied more easily. But what I think of is the work of Wayne Potts and others on how differently mice behave when they are in larger more natural habitats. Might these differences not impact nearly everything that gets studied in mice? Even if it is not practical to always study in big multi-mouse barns, is it not important to sometimes do this and to be in touch with what they find?

Apparently not. The people I’ve talked to here seem only vaguely aware of the big arena work. When I ask about the size of cages they work with, they talk about something they call “home cages.” I don’t know what this is. They can’t give the exact dimensions, and seem a little puzzled I ask. Maybe are they the size of a shoebox? I guess the mouse community is so large, they may not need to think more broadly.

But my point is not really to pick on the mouse community. What is your version of the home cage in your research? Are you limiting things in conventional ways that might have an impact on your results? Are you really exploring all the important parameters? Can you even talk to people outside your discipline, knowing when you are using jargon? It is a constant challenge.

Some of the issues are with communication outside your group. Others are perhaps more serious. They may obscure some aspects of what we might call truth, because you have forgotten that your assay for truth is really only an assay and not truth itself.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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