Scientific research: one for all and all for one

Science is a wonderful thing. Research is its means. Through our day-to-day research in our respective labs, we – graduate students, research assistants, associates and technicians, undergraduate students and even PIs – conduct research in order to understand the mechanisms underlying life, diseases, and things seen and unseen. From the study of submicroscopic matter that is physics to the study of celestial objects more than 109 times the diameter of the earth that represents astronomy to everything in between, science is everywhere around us. Anything we see, with an aided eye or not, is subject to one of the many sciences that encompasses our world.

   For instance, on your way to work you may see someone coughing and expelling air droplets. Microbiologists would have a field day with the microorganisms present in the aerosols, such as bacteria and viruses. Ever wanted to visit the Grand canyon? Geologists all over the world have studied this canyon and other of Earth’s solids to provide an insight into the history of the Earth. Anthropology, the study of humanity, is essential for understanding the cultural divergence amongst humans or the history of human activities, for example. Surely scientists and non-scientists alike have pondered upon existential questions such as: what are the chemical elements that form the basis of life? How can highly complex organisms like ourselves be composed of a smaller number of genes than the seemingly simple plant species known to us as rice? How do organisms breathe? Biochemistry, the study of chemical processes in living organisms, has a major contribution in answering those questions. Biology, the study of living organisms and life itself, is another imperative natural science that allows us to answer many of life’s enigmas. Of course, these fields of studies are just a few among a sea of hundreds of types of sciences that expands our knowledge and understanding of this vast world.

   Evidently, none of the great discoveries of past and current times have been made overnight. Albert Einstein – the physicist that developed the general theory of relativity, one of the foundations of physics. Louis Pasteur – a chemist and microbiologist that created the first vaccines for rabies and anthrax and was largely considered as one of the fathers of microbiology, along with Robert Koch. Robert Koch – a physician that developed Koch’s postulates, a series of four criteria that are used to establish a causal relationship between a causative microbe and a disease. Marie Curie – a well-renowned physicist and chemist who was the first woman ever to win a Nobel Prize for her pioneering studies on radioactivity. The advantages of attending McGill university is that I only had to think of the names of the buildings comprising this university to realize that a Nobel Prize winner perform his revolutionary work on these grounds. I am speaking of Ernest Rutherford, a chemist and physicist who discovered the concept of radioactive half-life and is considered as the father of nuclear physics. All these great scientific discoveries, as well as hundreds and thousands of others that would be too long too enumerate, took decades if not centuries to come to light and be accepted as fact.

   Even more considerable an observation is that none of these discoveries, nor any of the important scientific findings in science, have been made by one single individual. Scientific research is a vehicle to understand our surroundings. Have you personally ever completed any given thesis project all by yourself? With not one single person contributing to your efforts? Surely, that would be very unlikely. Whether you build on someone else’s work, ask fellow colleagues for advice, input or brainstorming ideas, whether you require the help of an undergraduate student to perform experiments, demand advice and guidance from your PI or work conjointly with another scientist to further advance the project, most advances in science are not done single-handedly. For instance, Albert Einstein’s work was founded at least in part on Isaac Newton’s theory of gravitation. Marie Curie’s discoveries of radioactive isotopes came forth with the help of husband Pierre Curie and fellow physicist Henry Becquerel. Albeit most of the fame of discovering the structure of DNA is attributed to James Watson and Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin also contributed to the ground-breaking work.

   If such great scientists required contributions and cooperation from fellow colleagues and did not assume to be able to make such important discoveries on their own (not that they realized at that time what an impact they would have centuries later!), it is inexplicable to me how some individuals presume to have the capacity to make a significant contribution to our knowledge and our world without any help. It is not rare that I see, and no doubt do you as well, how some people have what I would call scientific greed. They want no one to help them for the simple yet ominous reason that they want all the credit for themselves. We often see such a phenomena in polite or sometimes less sophisticated fights concerning first authorships on articles. All I wish to say on this front is that, certainly, it is gratifying and usually expected to be credited for one’s contributions and hard work, but that should not be the basis of science. It should not be the motor for conducting research. Imagine all the scientific advances that could be made if scientists and labs joined forces to understand a same problem or phenomena! Fortunately, I often do see in my department, as I am sure can be observed in many other departments at McGill, great cooperation and collective efforts between labs to answer a common problem. This being said, we do not live in an ideal world. Labs are more often than not competing for the same grants on a similar project, but maybe someday that will change.

There is no limit to what can be accomplished if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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