05 October 2009

Cool research questions and applied research

As a graduate student of an advisor that likes to socialize and network, I often find myself meeting with various visiting scientists to chat about research. Over the past few weeks, I've met with three such scientists. All of them are incredibly intelligent and do interesting work on genomics and chromosomal evolution in plants.

I had lunch with the first scientist. Each student or post doc chatted a little about our research. When it was my turn, I described my work (genome evolution in an obscure monocot family, Commelinaceae). He said he was going to ask me a mean, perhaps unfair, question. I was game, said OK. After all....why did I spend so much time competing in speech and debate if it wasn't to field unfair questions? He asked why I worked on plants that didn't have an applied research angle. I provided my standard answer about comparative biology offering a unique and useful approach for understanding biological complexity in the realm of plants not altered by humans, blah blah blah. I felt I was pretty articulate for being ill and doped up on cold medicine. He waited a moment, then said he didn't buy it. Basically, no answer would have worked...he didn't think a plant was worth studying unless people could eat it.

The second meeting with a scientist went much the same. Lunch, talk about science. This scientist was just mystified as to why I would choose to work on an obscure group. He accepted the value of empirical research, but didn't seem to grasp the relevance of working on a non-model system.

I just had a meeting with yet another scientist. This was an individual meeting with no other folks present. I must admit I approached the meeting with a moderate amount of trepidation, as I wasn't really geared up on this lovely Monday morning to defend my research again.

I'm pleased to say I was pleasantly surprised. We had a quite excellent discussion about chromosomal evolution, molecular mechanisms of genome restructuring, and emerging areas for research as technology develops and our knowledge base grows. He had not only heard of my group of plants, but used it as a teaching tool when instructing students in cytogenetics and chromosomal evolution. He helped me develop my conceptual framework for chromosomal evolution and the context in which I place different types of chromosomal information and analysis. It was an inspiring, refreshing, and very nice way to spend 45 minutes this morning.

In light of my new-found enthusiasm for cytogenetics, here's a picture of some painted wheat chromosomes I took a few years ago when learning cytogenetic techniques. The blue blobs are wheat chromosomes. The red dots are centromeres, and the green dots are an unknown genome fragment I was testing. Now if I could only get some Commelinaceae cytogenetic pics this pretty...

1 comment:

Brittany said...

Kate, I never think you have to be validated in your research efforts, no matter how obscure the organism. After all, didn't your adviser give you the ok on your project and organism? I would be willing to bet that if he thought it would be a waste of time, he would have told you. Also, I think some people can be extremely short-sighted, even in science. Sometimes if it isn't obvious what the implications of a particular organism/type of research are, people think it doesn't matter or has no relevance. Boo for them for using such small amounts of their brain.

On a more positive note, yay for your research being (re)validated by a visiting scientist!