So Many Questions, So Little Time!

There are so many unsolved mysteries in biology and medicine! What causes Parkinson’s disease? How does our brain know what is important to remember and what is okay to forget? Why do some patients with multiple sclerosis have rapidly progressing symptoms while others have isolated episodes separated by months or years?

With so many questions to answer and so many diseases to treat, how does a scientist decide on which topic to study?

For some scientists, the motivation is personal. A grandparent may have died of a stroke; a sibling may be living with cerebral palsy or autism; or a childhood friend may have had epilepsy. As a result, they may have resolved early in life to conquering a disease with which a loved one was afflicted.

Other are simply fascinated and drawn to a specific scientific topic. There can be something inherently alluring about solving a mystery and making new discoveries! Even better is the possibility that a finding will be used to fight human disease and suffering. Often a particular field, biological concept, model organism, system, or technology is what lures a scientist to climb a specific branch of the scientific tree.

Still another group balances their research with seeing patients in the hospital or clinic. For these physician-scientists, it is not at all unusual for frustrations in the clinic—a medical problem for which there is no current treatment or a patient whose illness remains undiagnosed—to result in a commitment to finding an answer. This direct link between the clinic and the laboratory often becomes a two-way street where questions raised in the clinic drive research in the laboratory while discoveries in the laboratory drive innovation in the clinic.

So, how do they answer these questions?

First, they need tools and scientists are constantly developing new ones to help us understand how the brain works. The NIH’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative is a massive project aimed at revolutionizing how we study the brain, and it has helped develop tools to study the brain in ways that were thought to be impossible only a few years ago.

Second, scientists need specialized skills and training to handle technical and conceptual hurdles. This is often done through apprenticeships in labs and clinics. If a scientist doesn’t have first-hand training, they often work in teams with other experts.

Third, they need money. Money to pay for their teams; to buy their equipment and services. For this, scientists often write compelling grant applications to government agencies such as the NIH or to other philanthropic groups.

Scientists work long hours on projects that have uncertain outcomes. Often, they generate so-called “negative results,” meaning that their experiments produce unexpected answers to their original questions. While this can be frustrating at times, both “positive” and “negative” results can move the project forward and be extremely energizing and this is often coupled with the hope that someday, perhaps because of their idea or project, people will live happier and healthier lives. Their love of science, the promise of discovery, and the potential to make a difference keeps them going, and their passion for overcoming a particular question, problem, issue, or roadblock makes each scientist choose a specific focus for his or her studies.

Hopefully this gives you a better sense of how projects are chosen. Next time, I will take a closer look at the folks actually doing the research and talk about who the people are who train to be scientists.