by Jalees Rehman
Research institutions in the life sciences engage in two types of regular scientific meet-ups: scientific seminars and lab meetings. The structure of scientific seminars is fairly standard. Speakers give Powerpoint presentations (typically 45 to 55 minutes long) which provide the necessary scientific background, summarize their group's recent published scientific work and then (hopefully) present newer, unpublished data. Lab meetings are a rather different affair. The purpose of a lab meeting is to share the scientific work-in-progress with one's peers within a research group and also to update the laboratory heads. Lab meetings are usually less formal than seminars, and all members of a research group are encouraged to critique the presented scientific data and work-in-progress. There is no need to provide much background information because the audience of peers is already well-acquainted with the subject and it is not uncommon to show raw, unprocessed data and images in order to solicit constructive criticism and guidance from lab members and mentors on how to interpret the data. This enables peer review in real-time, so that, hopefully, major errors and flaws can be averted and newer ideas incorporated into the ongoing experiments.
During the past two decades that I have actively participated in biological, psychological and medical research, I have observed very different styles of lab meetings. Some involve brief 5-10 minute updates from each group member; others develop a rotation system in which one lab member has to present the progress of their ongoing work in a seminar-like, polished format with publication-quality images. Some labs have two hour meetings twice a week, other labs meet only every two weeks for an hour. Some groups bring snacks or coffee to lab meetings, others spend a lot of time discussing logistics such as obtaining and sharing biological reagents or establishing timelines for submitting manuscripts and grants. During the first decade of my work as a researcher, I was a trainee and followed the format of whatever group I belonged to. During the past decade, I have been heading my own research group and it has become my responsibility to structure our lab meetings. I do not know which format works best, so I approach lab meetings like our experiments. Developing a good lab meeting structure is a work-in-progress which requires continuous exploration and testing of new approaches. During the current academic year, I decided to try out a new twist: incorporating literature and philosophy into the weekly lab meetings.
My research group studies stem cells and tissue engineering, cellular metabolism in cancer cells and stem cells and the inflammation of blood vessels. Most of our work focuses on identifying molecular and cellular pathways in cells, and we then test our findings in animal models. Over the years, I have noticed that the increasing complexity of the molecular and cellular signaling pathways and the technologies we employ makes it easy to forget the “big picture” of why we are even conducting the experiments. Determining whether protein A is required for phenomenon X and whether protein B is a necessary co-activator which acts in concert with protein A becomes such a central focus of our work that we may not always remember what it is that compels us to study phenomenon X in the first place. Some of our research has direct medical relevance, but at other times we primarily want to unravel the awe-inspiring complexity of cellular processes. But the question of whether our work is establishing a definitive cause-effect relationship or whether we are uncovering yet another mechanism within an intricate web of causes and effects sometimes falls by the wayside. When asked to explain the purpose or goals of our research, we have become so used to directing a laser pointer onto a slide of a cellular model that it becomes challenging to explain the nature of our work without visual aids.
This fall, I introduced a new component into our weekly lab meetings. After our usual round-up of new experimental data and progress, I suggested that each week one lab member should give a brief 15 minute overview about a book they had recently finished or were still reading. The overview was meant to be a “teaser” without spoilers, explaining why they had started reading the book, what they liked about it, and whether they would recommend it to others. One major condition was to speak about the book without any Powerpoint slides! But there weren't any major restrictions when it came to the book; it could be fiction or non-fiction and published in any language of the world (but ideally also available in an English translation). If lab members were interested and wanted to talk more about the book, then we would continue to discuss it, otherwise we would disband and return to our usual work. If nobody in my lab wanted to talk about a book then I would give an impromptu mini-talk (without Powerpoint) about a topic relating to the philosophy or culture of science. I use the term “culture of science” broadly to encompass topics such as the peer review process and post-publication peer review, the question of reproducibility of scientific findings, retractions of scientific papers, science communication and science policy – topics which have not been traditionally considered philosophy of science issues but still relate to the process of scientific discovery and the dissemination of scientific findings.
One member of our group introduced us to “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Ernest Hemingway. He had also recently lived in Spain as a postdoctoral research fellow and shared some of his own personal experiences about how his Spanish friends and colleagues talked about the Spanish Civil War. At another lab meeting, we heard about “Sycamore Row” by John Grisham and the ensuring discussion revolved around race relations in Mississippi. I spoke about “A Tale for a Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki and the difficulties that the book's protagonist faced as an outsider when her family returned to Japan after living in Silicon Valley. I think that the book which got nearly everyone in the group talking was “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity” by Andrew Solomon. The book describes how families grapple with profound physical or cognitive differences between parents and children. The PhD student who discussed the book focused on the “Deafness” chapter of this nearly 1000-page tome but she also placed it in the broader context of parenting, love and the stigma of disability. We stayed in the conference room long after the planned 15 minutes, talking about being “disabled” or being “differently abled” and the challenges that parents and children face.
On the weeks where nobody had a book they wanted to present, we used the time to touch on the cultural and philosophical aspects of science such as Thomas Kuhn's concept of paradigm shifts in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions“, Karl Popper's principles of falsifiability of scientific statements, the challenge of reproducibility of scientific results in stem cell biology and cancer research, or the emergence of Pubpeer as a post-publication peer review website. Some of the lab members had heard of Thomas Kuhn's or Karl Popper's ideas before, but by coupling it to a lab meeting, we were able to illustrate these ideas using our own work. A lot of 20th century philosophy of science arose from ideas rooted in physics. When undergraduate or graduate students take courses on philosophy of science, it isn't always easy for them to apply these abstract principles to their own lab work, especially if they pursue a research career in the life sciences. Thomas Kuhn saw Newtonian and Einsteinian theories as distinct paradigms, but what constitutes a paradigm shift in stem cell biology? Is the ability to generate induced pluripotent stem cells from mature adult cells a paradigm shift or “just” a technological advance?
It is difficult for me to know whether the members of my research group enjoy or benefit from these humanities blurbs at the end of our lab meetings. Perhaps they are just tolerating them as eccentricities of the management and maybe they will tire of them. I personally find these sessions valuable because I believe they help ground us in reality. They remind us that it is important to think and read outside of the box. As scientists, we all read numerous scientific articles every week just to stay up-to-date in our area(s) of expertise, but that does not exempt us from also thinking and reading about important issues facing society and the world we live in. I do not know whether discussing literature and philosophy makes us better scientists but I hope that it makes us better people.