Why study that, Ray Blind?

I’m excited by our second installment of our “Why study that?” series! Today, you’ll hear from Dr. Ray Blind, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Biochemistry, and Pharmacology. His lab uses structural biology to understand nuclear lipid signaling and phospholipid-controlled gene expression. You’ll enjoy his story that showcases the importance of outside perspectives on your journey.

-by Ray Blind, PhD.

The question “Why study that?” reminds of questions actors get a lot during interviews, such as: “Why did you choose to do this film?” I never liked that type of question because one cannot always pick and choose from a buffet of things to work on. Sometimes you just have take the work you can get! In my career, I didn’t always know what I wanted to work on, or even what I wanted from my career. How could a young trainee really know what their life’s work will actually be? Perhaps Claire Daines said it best on the 90’s TV show My So-Called Life:

“People always say you should be yourself, like yourself is this definite thing, like a toaster or something. Like you can even know what yourself is…”

But in the end, exploring your evolving self and interests is important to revealing what it is you will study. In other words, with maturity comes context. For me, I study nuclear lipid signaling because I followed-up on the most interesting answers I got from my experiments. Thus, the experiments I choose to do led me to what I study now, and my inherent interests were always in the background driving those experimental choices.

More specifically, I discovered an unanswered question that my interests, skills and expertise allow me to address. Of course, the question quickly becomes “how did I come to discover this unanswered question?”. The answer is a career-changing story I’ll spend the rest of my time here telling you.

It all came down to a conference I went to where I got a bunch of help from some remarkable scientists. Generally, I’ve found what separates truly remarkable scientists from the rest of us peasants is their ability to contextualize vast amounts of data they have stored up in their heads. Its those people that during questions after talks at conferences come up to the mic and refer the speaker to Figure 3 of some obscure paper from 1983 which, taken with the speaker’s results, reveals something new and extraordinary about nature.

That type contextualization fell from the heavens onto my plate when I went to a Keystone Meeting I had never gone to before. I was a 2nd year postdoc who didn’t know anyone in this particular field, and was just standing at my poster sipping a beer when Phil Hawkins (a famous guy in the field) came up to my poster and starting reading intently with his arms crossed. I still remember him stroking his chin as he turn to me while wagging his finger at my poster and saying with his squinty eyes, “You know, there are some people here that will find this work very interesting”. He then gathered up a bunch of his old famous scientist buddies, and they started spilling their whiskey all over each other arguing about my data, debating how my data proved that one old famous guy had been right and another was wrong.

I couldn’t hope to keep up with the barrage of questions I was receiving, most of which I thought were ridiculously irrelevant. However, they were looking at my data with different eyes, with different context. In the end, just about the only thing I could glean in that moment from all the commotion, arguing and debate was that 1) I liked these people a lot and 2) I had found an unanswered question, or niche, that could be my life’s work.

And voi-la, that’s why I work on what I work on. But more appropriately put, I work on what I do because some people were able to help me identify a long-standing research question that my interests, skills and expertise were ideally suited to address. That is why “I study that”.

But what can you learn from this story? Well if I were you, I would try to go to meetings outside your PI’s field, without your PI at the meeting. I encourage my students to do this so that they can discover how their interests, skills and expertise might be able to address some unmet research question in other fields. I want them to go without me so that the people at those meetings get to know them as a colleague, not as my student or postdoc.

So if you don’t know what you are going to work on, I’d say – don’t worry! Perhaps all you need is a bit more context to see how your skills, expertise and interests can address some unmet scientific question out there. With a little help from the right people, you can find it!

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