Friday, 14 June 2013 14:06

What’s the beak of a scientist?

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Darwin's finches, 1845 Darwin's finches, 1845

Over a hundred and fifty years ago in the Galapagos Islands Charles Darwin observed that different finches had different beak sizes and that these beak sizes corresponded to their functionality. A finch with a long slender beak could more easily eat the seeds off the fruit of a cactus than a finch with a shorter broader beak. Such phenotypic differences translated into differences in fitness for the finches. These seminal observations led to the theory of evolution, a theory so important that Theodosius Dobzhansky once wrote, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." But what if Darwin never observed his finches and instead landed on a very bizarre island inhabited by some other creatures, perhaps much more strange than finches...modern-day scientists! What would Darwin have observed? Perhaps he would have noticed first that scientists work in groups and that there is a hierarchy among the groups. Some groups would be smaller than others, some led by males and some led by females. Maybe he would have noticed that some scientists are better at theorizing while others show great technical expertise. Or maybe he would have noticed that some scientists have many grants and others very few. Remarkably, since this whole situation is hypothetical, I have his notes! I invite you to read over them and to vote for what you believe the metaphorical beak of scientists to be (i.e. that which dictates scientific fitness).

Notebook of Charlie Darwin: Observer of Modern-Day Scientists

April 29th
Today I arrived in a bizarre place. There are many groups of people, who call themselves "scientists." They are proving very difficult to catch so I will try and describe their behavior in hopes of understanding their motivations.

May 5th
I noticed that scientists typically appear in groups in a structured hierarchy. The most dominant scientist, who others call "the PI," appears to be the eldest. Junior scientists follow the instruction of the PI, often performing daily tasks at the behest of the PI. Notably, junior scientists appear hesitant to approach the PI, even though they vastly outnumber him or her. In certain groups junior scientists are rather dispensable. These junior scientists typically leave to join other groups and their scientific fitness seems to be negatively affected. However, numerous scientist groups have high turnover rates of students; this turnover is likely to be an important predictor of success.

May 7th
Today I observed senior scientists involved in teaching junior scientists. The junior scientists do not appear to be part of the group typically associated with the PI. Some scientists teach more than others, though scientist-teachers are a minority. Perhaps teaching hampers other activities of the scientists?

May 9th
I awoke to find the scientists communicating via organized language. This language was transcribed and seemed to be attacked by other scientists and sometimes discredited. This communication ritual, which they call "publishing," seems important as all scientists do it. It is as if the scientists must engage in this activity or they will perish.

May 10th
Scientists spend copious amounts of time writing other documents, which I heard them call "grants." This writing is distinct from publishing. Scientists appear distressed during the process. Further, I noticed that the amount of time writing grants is somehow correlated to the financial success of a scientist. Interestingly, all scientists have money, suggesting it is necessary for their survival.

In your experience, what is the most critical determinant of academic scientific success?

Publishing - 16.7%
Mentoring - 8.3%
Teaching - 0%
Discovery - 58.3%
Funding - 16.7%
Awards - 0%

Total votes: 12
The voting for this poll has ended on: July 17, 2013
Josh Nicholson

Josh is currently a graduate student in the lab of Daniela Cimini at Virginia Tech.  He is working towards understanding the role of karyotypic alterations in cancer.  In addition to his interests in cell biology he is also interested in how science is practiced from publishing to funding.

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