Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The royal (scientific) jelly

I only recently heard about how honeybees make this stuff called royal jelly.  It's amazing!  Basically, when the queen dies, you give some other larvae large amounts of royal jelly, which leads to those larvae turning into queens (epigenetic effects, apparently).  Super cool.

I also just read Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers", and the basic idea is that people who end up being great successes owe as much to circumstance (i.e., "royal jelly") as to inherent talent and ability.  I largely agree with him.  And the cool thing is that he has at least some hard evidence to back up this theory.  One example is that most pro hockey players tend to be born early in the year.  The idea is that (due to age cutoffs in the leagues), the January born kids end up playing with the December born kids of the same calendar year, and since they're bigger and stronger, they end up getting the attention of the coaches, etc.  Total royal jelly effect.

It got me thinking about royal jelly effects in science as well, for which I think there is evidence on multiple levels.  Consider the graduate students of a particular PI who went on to have successful academic careers.  Anecdotally, these often seem to be among the first students that PI has.  The natural explanation is that these students get the PIs royal jelly: the PI is heavily invested in them and has a lot of time to spend working with them.  This is absolutely not to say that these students are not very talented in their own right, nor that PI jelly alone would make a superstar out of a fundamentally mediocre student, nor that an established PI can't churn out exceptional students.  But I think it just biases things towards success.

Same goes the other way.  If you're a PI who ends up at an institution with a name that attracts talented graduate students, you will of course do better.  A great student will naturally execute a project better than a so-so one.  But more than that, I feel like good students can take ownership of their project, freeing up tons more of your time as a junior PI because you don't have to sweat all the details.  And yes, I feel extremely fortunate to have an exceptional team of people in the lab that I consider primarily responsible for our success.

Circumstance can also affects one's scientific career in other, broader ways as well.  For instance, I seem to have started my lab in a period of extreme competition for research funding.  How will this impact the trajectory of our lab?  I'm not sure.  Another thing is that systems biology is now a relatively mature field.  Long gone are the times when tagging some protein with GFP and judicious use of error bars would get you a high profile paper in Nature noted for "a novel combination of experiment and theory" (I'm kidding, kidding!  Sort of.).  Not that it's a bad field to get into by any means; I would certainly argue that it is still very vibrant and exciting, and in fact, I think that now is the period when systems biology is best poised to have a real impact on biology.  But it's just that the wind is not filling your sails out quite as much as it was 10 years ago.

I think you can also see evidence for the power of circumstance in scientific fields and nationalities.  For instance, there are tons of very talented Israelis in systems biology.  I've heard people ascribe this to all sorts of things, including the fact that Israelis have to go through compulsory military service (can't remember the logic behind that one).  But consider the following.  I also noticed a while ago a blip of very talented Turkish biophysicists.  Now is it something about the Turkish national culture that spawns biophysics?  Dunno.  But I did ask a Turkish biophysics person I knew about it, and I think he said something like "Well, all the good students go through the same institute in Turkey, and we looked at who was successful, who to look up to.  And there was Ahmet Yildiz, who was in biophysics."  Again, purely anecdotal, but could the Turkish biophysics craze all be a result of Ahmet Yildiz's work in single molecule biophysics (awesome and highly influential in its own right, by the way)?  Now that is some serious impact!  Maybe the reasons that there are so many Israelis in systems biology has its roots in Uri Alon and Naama Barkai's early pioneering work in the field?  Could be.  Life truly is random.  I got into the field because of a random chat with Sam Isaacson, who was also a graduate student with Charlie Peskin at the time, that got me interested in stochastic gene expression.  I worked in a lab during my math PhD because Charlie Peskin happened to play tennis sometimes with Fred Kramer, who co-ran a lab with Sanjay Tyagi (who became my other PhD advisor, and gave me plenty of royal jelly, by the way).  My paper with Hedia and Dave Dubnau happened because I had to take a train home early for physical therapy and saw Dave reading some papers by Michael Elowitz.

(Incidentally, things after that seem on the face of it to be a bit more deterministic.  But even looking at that a bit more closely, there's a lot more randomness than I thought.)

Again, none of this is to say that the people who are successful scientists are not highly talented people–they are, in an absolute sense.  It's just that there are many talented people, and who knows when the right circumstances come together to have that talent develop down a particular path.  My only advice is to keep your mind open, and try to interact with as many interesting people as you can from different fields.  Life is random, but you can definitely stack the odds... :)

No comments:

Post a Comment