Thinking out of the Box while one is in a Rabbit Hole

by Shannon – Earlier this week one of the students in our group was criticized for his unorthodox “big picture” thinking.  Yesterday I wrote him the following in an email:

“Remember – anything out of the box will be discouraged by those who can’t see beyond the sides of their own containment.”

From that first famous Photograph 51 by Rosalind Franklin in 1952, biology has exponentially developed more and more tools to probe the genetic, molecular, and cellular basis of life.

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Raymond Gosling/King’s College London

In turn, modern biology has raised new generations of scientists with a passion for hypothesis-driven deep dives into the intricate networks of molecules that bring about Life itself.

It is here I am reminded of a quote from one of my favorite children’s books by Lewis Carroll, about a young girl named Alice, who witnessed an odd little rabbit in a waistcoast go down a hole and

“burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge. In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.”

Now, in 2018, I wonder that sometimes we also become too much like Alice, down a rabbit-hole of hypotheses without any consideration for how to pull ourselves out to the bigger picture.

100 years ago,  before the high powered microscopes, molecular techniques, and birth of genomics, scientists literally and figuratively only had the bigger picture. Today, like in our National Cryo-EM Facility,  we can see single molecules.  Our current insight into the intricacies of the natural world is astounding, and it is only getting clearer.

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A micrograph of dragonfly mandibles from the journal,  Scientific American, 1915

But with such power of insight comes the risk of becoming lost in the minutia, probing ever deeper into a system until we no longer connect with the larger questions that prompted that journey. We teach our students to always pursue hypothesis-driven research, forgetting that hypotheses come only after we first observe a phenomenon. But with so many insights in today’s modern world, one need only to read current literature to generate a thousand new questions.  How many of us have stopped to observe that original phenomenon in the first place?

At a recent neuroscience conference, I informally polled each presenter whether he/she had ever watched their biological organism behave in the wild.  Only one said that she had, even though the presentations focused on the neural mechanisms of behavior.

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The brain of an apple fly dissected by Hinal Kharva

While we must never stop traveling down the rabbit hole, we must not forget the land we left, nor where we intend to end up.  Mechanism is essential for understanding proximate and ultimate causes of biological phenomena, but we must never cease to remind ourselves of what the phenomenon actually is, and go back to observe it over and over again.

This is the fundamental premise of the NICE lab, as stated in our Inspiration,

“NICE strives to inspire a new type of scientist who fuses a Naturalist’s heart with a technician’s insight.”

Our research tries to make a ladder where we can connect the top and bottom of that rabbit hole. We ask big, observation-based questions with a multitude of tiny mechanistic answers, and are required to mix chemistry, biology, engineering, art design, and any other field necessary to observe and then test phenomona.

When I was a little girl, I often wished I could talk to animals.  I would try to talk to the squirrels and sometimes they would chatter back to me.  It was that passion that made me become a scientist.  And now, in some small way, I can communicate with animals every day through the power of chemical ecology. What can be more powerful than living your dream?

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Dad and I having breakfast while camping in the Canadian Rockies

If you are a scientist who finds yourself lost in disulfide bridges and endoplasmic reticula, stop for a minute and ask what your 10 year old self might wonder about your system.  Don’t forget that child and his or her sense of big-picture wonder. It is that wonder that sustains us, and will lead to the truly great discoveries yet to come.

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