The wonder and wander of research

curiosity-driven cartoonThe word “research” first appeared in the English language sometime during the 16th century. It comes from the Latin word “circare,” which means “to go about and wander.” So really, research is all about wandering.

But research that is commercially and politically popular has a different agenda. That agenda is oriented towards the development of new technology, tools, and cures. Such as, for example, vacuum cleaners.

However, before Daniel Hess could invent the vacuum cleaner (or “carpet sweeper” as it was called back then); several advancements in science and technology had to be made. For instance, the inventor had to have at least known that suction is caused by a difference in air pressure. I don’t study vacuum cleaners, but I do ask myself how important my research is, and what impact it might really have on society.

Briefly (I’ll be less brief in a later post), I am studying how a certain molecule characterized in the immune (called TNF-alpha), regulates neurotransmission. Neurotransmission (or “synaptic transmission”) is the cellular mechanism that is thought to underlie learning and memory. Why did I decide to do this research? Well, I was generally curious about how the brain produces complex behavior from a bunch of tiny molecules and brain cells.

Curiosity is surely the driving force behind many a scientists’ motivation, rather than the relevance of their research to the world outside of academia. But in the field of life sciences, there is an enormous pressure to make research relevant to some disease or pathology. Government and funding agencies are increasingly interested in impact-oriented research. This limits the ability of scientists to initiate creative or novel research, and undermines curiosity-based scientific inquiry.

New Yorker Cartoon Poster Print by Leo Cullum
New Yorker Cartoon Poster Print by Leo Cullum

There is nothing wrong with having goal-oriented research and development to solve specific problems. But it is important to realize that investment in fundamental or basic research is essential for laying the foundation for the discoveries of the future.

Curiosity-driven research might often appear to provide no obvious benefits to society, but history teaches us the value of serendipity or “wander and wonder” in science.

One of my favorite examples of curiosity-driven research is the case of the Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP). Basically, a scientist in the 1960s was wondering what made a certain species of jellyfish glow green. He eventually discovered and characterized GFP, which at first, didn’t amount to much.

Then, another scientist realized that this could be used as an ideal cellular beacon to track the localization of specific cells or molecules inside living organisms. Fast forward to 2008 and these scientists won the Nobel Prize!

I’m certainly not holding out to win the Nobel Prize in 40 years, but I do think that the tiny, seemingly irrelevant details about neurotransmission that I am studying today will eventually be part of future scientific breakthroughs.

(On a side note, it is still not known why jellyfish glow green…)

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