What it is it like to be a Research Scientist

Patrick Lim is a research scientist working full-time as a member of the Angiogenesis group at the Heart Research Institute, looking at the role of special stem cells in blood on a person’s ability to recover from blocked blood vessels, and how these differ in men and women, as well as people with Diabetes.

During this time, he’s also been procrastinating about finishing his PhD, which looks at how hormones (like testosterone and estrogen) control the function of different cells in the testes, and how it affects sperm production.

When he eventually grows up, he’d like to be a productive member of society and be part of some ground-breaking research that will get him interviewed on tv, and maybe even be filmed pipetting water into some tubes while looking thoughtful and intelligent.

When on the interwebs, Patrick can be found on Twitter at http://twitter.com/limburger2001

I met Patrick at a Sydney Twitter group meetup a few weeks ago. After finding out what he did at work I asked him if he’d like to be interviewed about what it’s like to be a Research Scientist.

Neerav Bhatt:
In the Autumn 2008 issue of “Fast Thinking” magazine Dr Geoff Garrett, Chief Executive and CSIRO Board member said “one of the most daunting problems – and this is an important issue for policy makers to consider – in my early years we were operating on year-to-year funding. It leaves little room for effective longer-term planning, for good strategy and its implementation”

Does your organisation operate on a year-to-year funding basis?

Patrick Lim:
Not exactly, the funding that we seek usually goes for a couple of years at a time, though there’s usually a review at the end of each year. But our group applies for funding each year anyway, so as to keep a constant flow of research and funds.

Its true that it may leave little room for long-term planning, but scientists can sometimes have our head so far into a subject that we need these deadlines in order to get us productive and producing meaningful results.

Anyway, I’d like to think that part of being a scientist is being able to work through these problems, so I understand the rant, but can see the other point of view.

Neerav Bhatt:
If so what effect does this have on how much time scientists who trained to do research have to spend on writing grant applications and appeasing bureaucrats?

Patrick Lim:
Well it depends on where you are on totem pole. As you proceed up the ranks, the less involved you are with the experiments, and the more time you spend on steering the research and seeking funding.

But to be honest, I disagree with the statement that writing grant applications and appeasing bureaucrats is a waste of time, because I think its part and parcel of research. Research is as much, or more an intellectual endeavour as it is a physical one.

I think writing grants forces people to really think hard about what their researching – I mean, if you can’t sell your research to the wider community, then you really should question whether you proposal is worthwhile.

Ultimately, I see publicly funded research laboratories as public companies with the government and its taxpayers as the directors and shareholders – the bureaucracy is in place to ensure that these research laboratories are producing a ‘return’ for the people’s investment.

Though it may feel like jumping these hoops are detracting from the ‘real’ research, I believe that these measures are in place to ensure that the meagre funds that are available to fund research are going to the right places. The way these measures are implemented however, is another story.

Neerav Bhatt:
Adjunct Professor of Science Communication at the University of Technology, Sydney and editor of www.sciencealert.com.au Julian Cribb recently said in the Australian newspaper:

“In the unceasing quest for knowledge, each year Australian scientists carry out more than 12,000 individual research projects, more than half of them funded by the public. However, in the combined public announcements of the universities and science agencies, only about 1200 outcomes are reported.

As a result, Australia has a science flood but a knowledge drought. Large parts of our science moulder in the yellowing leaves of journals, never to be delivered, never to be used”

What do you think about this problem?

Patrick Lim:
I personally think that the problem lies with the article, and less with regards to the state of research in Australia. The author implies that research that isn’t reported to the public through “combined public announcements of the universities and science agencies” are worthless and stagnating “in the yellowing leaves of journals”.

But through reading the article, it seems to me that the author has more of an issue with the dissemination of the research to the public than the quality. To be frank, the most probable reason why only one-tenth of these individual research projects are reported is because these are the few that are ‘newsworthy’ enough to make it through the popular media.

Not meaning to pass the buck here, but I haven’t encountered a scientist that wouldn’t talk your ear off regarding their research, so I don’t think that it’s the scientists that are being purposely secretive of their work. Unfortunately, not all 12000 of the individual research projects are seen as ‘glamorous’ or ‘sexy’ enough to garner attention from TV or magazines.

I have no doubt that a large majority of the research projects are worthwhile (see above regarding grant applications), but there is a lot of research, even just in our institute alone, which are so dry and focused that its only working on a small piece of a larger puzzle.

People don’t realise, and this may be due to issues with dissemination of information, that every cancer drug find, or every new material identified, sits on top thousands upon thousands of man hours in research to produce the foundations of knowledge needed to get to that finding.

To imply that research that doesn’t reach the public’s knowledge is therefore a waste is quite insulting – just because the last person in the relay is the one that crosses the line does not mean that the efforts of the other members don’t count.

Neerav Bhatt:
That’s quite interesting Patrick, you make some points that I hadn’t considered before.

Please tell the readers what you think someone who wants to be a researcher eg: a university science student should know about the realities of work as a Research Scientist.

Patrick Lim:
I think that anyone who wants to be a researcher should have some thoughts on what research they want to be involved in – read widely, and find what interests you, and don’t be afraid to contact the researchers in that field.

Also, be open to the fact that you aren’t stuck to one topic once you’ve decided. The important thing is that you have to be passionate about what you do, because you will have to live and breathe your subject. I think what separates a true researcher from someone who gets paid to work in a lab, is this passion.

The most fulfilling part of being a researcher is when your work is seen as worthwhile and useful by the wider community, as well as your peers. As a molecular biology guy, obviously the ultimate goal would be to part of research that cures a disease, or at least makes people’s lives a bit better. It’s a bit egotistical I know, but my hearts in the right place, I swear!

The most annoying bit about research is that it can easily take over your life. There is always another article to read, another experiment to do, and unfortunately, the effort doesn’t always equal results that you can use. In that way, research is a gamble, and it doesn’t always pay off. I think once you make peace with that possibility, and take steps to avoid it, then you’ll be a better scientist.

Science Can Be Fun

Don’t assume that scientists are boring because they do serious work. Patrick’s favourite scientists are the famous Muppet Show Scientists “Dr Bunsen Honeydew” and his assistant “Beaker”.

In 2004 the BBC conducted an online survey to find the most popular scientists on TV and in Movies. Dr Bunsen Honeydew and his trusty assistant, Beaker received a third of the votes, easily beating Star Trek’s “Mr Spock” and Dr Who’s Time Lord “The Doctor”.


3 responses to “What it is it like to be a Research Scientist”

  1. I have the luxury of being married to a research scientist and have to say that it sounds like an interesting field to get into but it’s definitely not for everyone. You need to be very analytical, intrigued, curious and be very interested in the realm of science.

  2. Second word. Its it is. Please proof your title.

  3. Ok, one more time. Chars were deleted when posting.

    Second word. “Its” is not = to “it is”. Please proof your title.

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