One of the thought-provoking articles that has come up repeatedly in my twitter feed this week, is an article in the NY Times about (and written by) a young woman who found out that she carries a BRCA1 mutation. After discussing the reasons behind wanting to know whether she carried the gene mutation, she mentions enrolling in a cancer biology class taught by a
“professor [who] filled his slides with dark oncological puns, lecturing with the almost robotic detachment I sometimes see in those who work closely with cancer”…
Reading this paragraph as a cancer researcher, I asked myself to what extent do I portray the robotic detachment she mentions, and does this lead to better research? Its now a few days after I read the article but I don’t think I really have an answer yet.
To elaborate, my work now is really translational – if you ask me what the measure(s) of my success over the next few years is, here’s my answer: I would have designed a biomarker-driven treatment strategy for IBC patients that still appears promising after rigorous preclinical work including animal model testing and a clear understanding of mechanism. My data so far on my main project is coming along very nicely!
In addition, because I am in the TRIUMPH postdoctoral training program, I have the unique opportunity to be exposed to clinical issues at a deeper level than virtually any other PhD-track program in the country. This year, in parallel with my lab research, I am engaging in rotations with various specialties within MDACC (pediatrics, medical oncology, radiation therapy, phase 1 trials, surgical oncology). In reflecting on my experiences so far, and talking with my peers, it is crystal clear to us why we are here. Papers in nice high-IF journals, awards, invited talks etc are nice (and desirable qualifications for those of us who want to stay in academia), but at the end of the program, many of our goals include being able to see our work translate directly into patient care.
On top of these IRL opportunities, I have enjoyed interacting with a group of cancer survivors and patient advocates on social media and reading blogs, which has given me a deeper understanding of the impact of cancer on people’s lives than the average lab scientist, and made me even more driven to do clinically-relevant work. Time will tell whether time invested in such activities above and beyond my long days in lab, will actually make me a better researcher – but I have my suspicions it will.
In contrast, when thinking back to my PhD which was in a much more basic science-driven department, my success was measured by how elegantly I could prove a mechanism for some biological process (in my case how oxidative stress and DNA damage signals to particular pathways to regulate cell survival/death), and by most people’s definition, I was successful in this endeavor. Looking back at some of my peers I have to admit that I saw some of the “robotic detachment” mentioned in the article, not only from those who worked in cell lines/yeast on fundamental biology questions (like understanding all the binding partners of protein X or what genes ABC transcription factor regulates). Perhaps it was just such fundamental (and SLOW!) research combined with the struggles of grad school that made even the brightest students to sometimes appear uninspired. However, even some of my colleagues who worked on mouse models of XYZ cancer seemed to care only enough to do their project to their committee’s satisfaction. To be fair, some superficial level of detachment is probably necessary for working with animals that have to be sacrificed during/after the study, especially after the researcher induced disease (in the most humane way possible). However deep down, I think that most cancer researchers aren’t very detached from their work. After all, cancer touches us all at some point whether individually or people close to us. Maybe its just a question of degree instead of a black-and-white detached or not attitude. Hey, maybe we can be robots WITH hearts – if that’s what it takes to make a real difference!
What do you think fellow biomedical researchers? Do you feel detached from your work i.e. is it mainly just a fun/interesting way to make a living or are you deeply invested in the broader implications of your work? Or is the reality of the disease you are working on so depressing that you need some objectivity to survive.