How to transform research in your field – does Rockefeller University have the answer?

Imagine you have a decade or so to transform research in your field. What would you do? Would you stop doing whatever you are doing to do things differently? What is a transformation anyway? I am thinking about this because apparently a transformation is what Rockefeller University expects of its faculty. It is a 12 year requirement for junior faculty to become permanent, or so I was told.

I like the idea of a goal like this because it is big and will require that you think hard about central questions, but most of all I like it because it recognizes the social nature of science. If you and your work doesn’t change what other people do, then it is simply not transformative. So don’t find a little niche and work in it if it doesn’t have more general implications. Change the field. Ideas, techniques, and discoveries can change fields. Behavioral ecology was transformed by the discovery of how common it was for monogamous looking songbirds to mate with strangers. Social insect studies were transformed by inclusive fitness theory and by measures of genetic relatedness. Behavioral studies have not been transformed as much as they should have been by the increasing understanding of how much parasites and diseases control behavior. Transformations from techniques are everywhere, from new microscopy to genomes, to better statistics. Well, I could go on about big ideas that entrance me, but the question is how can you do this?

Reading and fiddling around with something you like are great ways to start. There is a feedback between doing something, whether it be in the lab or field, or even with pencil and paper, and reading what others have done. Take advantage of this, even if the fiddling seems to lead nowhere and the reading is overwhelming. Then pick something ambitious and stick with it. Don’t flit from one thing to another, rounding out corners or plucking the elusive low hanging fruit.

How to do these big things is not so mysterious. Take the theory from one area and apply it to another. Become the world expert on one group of organisms, testing all theories that are important to them. Tweak a known technique and scale it up to reach new insights. Collaborate. Develop something new even if it takes years.

Then sell your work. Don’t wait for others to discover it. Write reviews. Give talks. Take on collaborators and help others. Be flexible and change if needed, but always push for the big ideas.

What have I done that is so important? I suppose I began by getting to know two species of wasps extremely well, so I could test theories derived from kin selection. I found a great life-long collaborator which made everything easier and more fun. We did a lot of work with DNA microsatellites to estimate genetic relatedness in wasps and stingless bees. I succeeded in finding lots of variable microsatellite loci because I learned this new technique and scaled up to work with hundreds of loci, easily discarding the difficult ones because I had others. More recently we brought theories of social evolution to the cell and molecular biologists working on social amoebae, particularly Dictyostelium discoideum. Now we are developing this as a lovely and tiny system for studying mutualism, farming, and eukaryote-bacteria interactions. We are redefining what an organism really is. At every step we have had a great set of collaborators. Well, you get the idea. What does your list look like?

The people we met with at Rockefeller University clearly get the transformational challenge. Daniel Kronauer has taken one of the genetically odd ant species that are clonal and yet have key features like other army ants of activity and stasis. He has geared up to  collect data on hundreds of colonies in completely automated ways. Along with new genetic systems and experiments, this could be come the system to look at ant cooperation.

Fernando Nottebohm  is writing about the very biggest ideas and discoveries, a step above his specific work on bird song and why some bird species can always learn new songs and others fixate on the songs of their youth.

Joel Cohen told us about Taylor’s law and how he was curious about how it behaved in mid range, discovering that it had a singularity, not a simple relationship. Interestingly, this could only be seen in simulations if the populations were very large, something an early referee missed.

Winrich Freiwald pulled out his computer and showed us how neurons in the brain fired for faces and not other things, some for frontal, others for profiles. I wonder how long it will be before we know what every neuron in the brain does, just as we know the origin of every cell in some nematodes.

Alexander Tomasz flattered us by printing out our CVs and searching for common ground, finding it most strongly in a paper he wrote nearly 50 years ago on the importance of bacterial cell concentration and cell competence (their ability to take up DNA from the environment). I was also interested in his more recent work on infectivity of specific cells in a lineage.

Last in our line up was Cori Bargmann who enticed us by asking for help designing an experiment. It was no surprise she knew exactly what she was doing, though she considered the experiment outside her main area.

Many of these people had nice views of the East River, not really a river, of course. Was it Winrich or Joel that pointed out that the direction of flow was about to change with the tide?

The group was clearly enriched for multinationality and for left-handedness, but these are not the only ways to get to creative fearlessness. We met with grad students and post-docs, talking more about the process of science than their specific results. Be brave and outrageous, I told them, imagining that they are the best of the best, with no need to worry so much about dismal hiring rates. After all, I imagine this innovative place, lacking the petty divisions of departments, will help them blossom into coveted young professors.

So think big, be transformative, and keep your eyes open for the unspecified area job ads for positions at Rockefeller.

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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
This entry was posted in Creativity, Managing an academic career, New ideas, Scientific community and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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