Life as a scientist

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Talking to non-scientists we realised that a lot of people have no real idea what scientists do all day. Pour blue liquids into red ones waiting for an explosion, right? Not quite. So we want to give you insights into our daily life in the lab. And we start with the scientific method – because there is a lot more to do than experiments to be a successful scientist.

Most people probably think that as a scientist you have an idea, formulate a hypothesis and then go on to test it with an experiment establishing a clear conclusion.

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It would be great if it were just that. We love science and standing in the lab, trying new techniques to solve a problem, but in the end that’s probably not even 50% of what we do.

How to find a hypothesis

You may have done unbiased preliminary experiments, like screening a wide range of substances or genes for their function and now have a hypothesis based on that. You can also come across a new idea from reading published literature, as most papers demonstrate new findings but also leave questions open. This approach is more risky, as published data is common knowledge and other people may have the same idea. In reality most hypothesis are probably formed by work you or other people in the lab you work in do – someone did an experiment with an unexpected result opening a whole new idea to work on.

But no matter where your initial idea came from, you now need to search for published literature on your topic. Has someone already looked into this and proved or disproved your hypothesis? But reading is not just key now, you should always try and stay on top of new literature to see how findings by other people fit with your results and to get new ideas. Additionally, there may well be someone else in the world working on exactly the same thing as you are. Sometimes you know about them, sometimes you don’t and only find out when that person publishes their findings.

Who’s paying?

After finding an area of interest, formulating a hypothesis and doing your background reading, you need to find funding. Yes money. In most jobs that isn’t an issue, but securing funding is a crucial part of a scientist life. And it gets more and more important the more senior you get. PhD students normally have a stipend and don’t have to worry about funds for their experiments. But from the stage of post-doc (the catchy name for everyone with a doctorate) you need to apply for fellowships or grants which will fund your work, by paying both your salary and your experiments.

To secure funding you need to write a summary detailing your hypothesis and some preliminary data proofing its foundation. This proposal is then reviewed by experts, who decide if you get money to do experiments or not. With a total of 1.9 billion US$ spend on research and development worldwide in 2015, you may think this is easy but it is hard. You are likely to get rejected a lot. The better the hypothesis and initial data, the better are your chances to get a grant.

Testing your hypothesis

The next step is to break down your hypothesis. The initial idea may be that “gene X plays a critical role in activation of cell A by cell B”. You cannot verify this statement with one experiment, so you need to break it into testable smaller hypotheses such as “gene X activates this pathway” and “cell B produces this substance to activate cell A”.

Not all experiments will work the first time. There is a lot of time spend optimising the setup of experiments and repeating them until they give robust and repeatable results. This can be frustrating, especially if you cannot pinpoint why something isn’t working. But once its working, you feel like a little kid on Christmas.

Analysis of experimental data is also a big part of daily life in the lab and for some experiments it can take even longer than performing the actual experiment. So scientists spend a lot of time swearing at Excel too!

In an ideal world your experiment will either proof or disproof your hypothesis. If it disproofs your hypothesis you either formulate a new hypothesis or as you were only testing part of your hypothesis, redefine your hypothesis to explain the data. Going back to our example above, you may now think a different substance is secreted to affect cell A. In the real world scientists try to use several techniques to proof the same hypothesis and sometimes this means inconclusive data as one technique supports your idea and the second does not. And that means you go back and design a new experiment to test your hypothesis.

In the end stands the paper (and the paper party)

When the hypothesis is tested, redefined and proofed, your data is ready to be published, which is what all scientists are after. And it means more time spend writing.

Publications in the science world are called papers and they tell the world what you have done over the last few years. You write down your methods, results and discuss why this is important to the fields. There are hundreds of different journals and ~920 000 papers are expected to be published in 2015. Each journal has an impact factor, determining the importance of the research they publish. (At least in theory. There is a lot of debate about the real use of impact factors, but we won’t get into this now.) Obviously, scientist aim to get into the journals with the highest impact factor, as this results in more readers and exposure for their research. But not just that, a good list of papers on your CV is also the best reference for a new job or grant proposals. So papers are a big deal.

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Being a scientist means a lot more than pouring one colourful liquid into the other. Besides standing in the lab and performing experiments, scientists need to be good at communicating their science both in publications and grant proposals. Good for us that we like writing about science. But scientists also need to be quite stress-resistant as there is a lot of pressure to publish fast and well in order to get grants. This leads to long hours spend in the lab, with an average post doc working 50 hours a week. There are people who thrive under these conditions while others, for the sake of job security (grants normally run for 2-5 year and that how long a scientist normally has a contract for) and shorter hours, change to industry. They use their knowledge to work in clinical trial, pharma companies or publishing of scientific journals.

But I don’t want to complain – I love my job and the freedom that comes with it. Scientists get to choose what they do each day, which leads they want to pursue and choose their hours. It’s quite common for scientist to start work after 10am.

This was an overview about what it means to be a scientist. You have questions about this – feel free to ask us!

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