04 October 2013

Journal club and breadth of research

As someone interested in research synthesis, it's not surprising I have an appreciation for a wide breadth of biological investigations. My PhD training was in a biology department which spanned the gamut of research, from neuroscience to cell/molecular to ecology/evolution. As a result, the peers with whom I interacted often possessed research which was only distantly related to my interests in plant evolution. Fellow graduate students working on mouse stem cells, molecular pathways in fungus, and katydid behavior offered some of the best insights into formation of my dissertation questions and analysis.

The result of this training is acceptance that I will often be drawn into discussions about science which does not include direct application to my personal expertise. Rather than bemoan the time "wasted" by these "distractions," I instead use them as a way to improve the overall efficacy of my scientific thinking.

Take, for example, this selection of articles, each of which was discussed at NESCent's journal club sometime during the last few months (our journal club basically invites all NESCent scientists to read a journal article prior to an hour-long meeting where we talk through the paper).
  1. Dung Beetles Use the Milky Way for Orientation
  2. Gut Microbiota from Twins Discordant for Obesity Modulate Metabolism in Mice
  3. Is there Room for Punctuated Equilibrium in Macroevolution?
  4. Genomic Evolution and Transmission of Helicobacter pylori in two South African families
  5. The Tragedy of the Commons
NESCentians are all evolutionary biologists, but that's where the generalities end. That sampling of articles also handily describes the variation in research from participating scientists. Molecular to organismal, animals to bacteria, theory and empiricism. While most of the papers are current (2013), the fifth article is from 1968. The really beautiful part is that some articles don't even mention evolution at all! 

Somehow, we still manage to find plenty of things to discuss (sometimes rather heatedly). This model for journal club does well to expand our brains and promote novel research questions by taking advantage of the variety of expertise here at NESCent. There's generally one person in attendance who knows something about the model system or experimental approach, who then answers basic questions about the whys and hows of the methodology. The goal is for us to not understand every nuanced detail of the paper's analysis, but to focus on the parts in which we're interested. 

The moral of the story: it's not necessary to have a super-specific focus for a discussion group to still have meaningful and interesting discourse. The particular benefits gleaned from these interactions, however, will have to wait for another post.

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