Thursday, July 2, 2009

thinking outside the box.

[i edited the text below ever so slightly because of logical gaps i ignored in my turmoil of emotion. hopefully it makes more sense now.]

i have been meaning to write about some of the reasons i found academic life implausible. brought to tears today not only because i recently lost my mother to brain cancer but also because a friend of mine lost her husband and became a widower before turning 30 years old next week, i will write about one of the reasons i left my job and nowadays consider an academic career a non-option.

working in academia is all but financially secure. most research is funded with grants that individuals and research groups compete for with applications they take significant time writing. application and evaluation processes vary, but the most common standard is that each academic discipline is evaluated separately by experts in each field. i believe it healthy to assume that most applicants would deserve a grant; the reason some are left out is more often the lack of money rather than an undeserving application. my point being that many who definitely had the potential for brilliant research are left without funding. therefore, applications are written with funding in mind, often compromising intellectual desires.

the makings of a great scientist and researcher are few, but essential: the ability to grasp and handle vast amounts of knowledge and the ability to argue a point. meticulousness is also essential. the single trait most often not associated with doing research, but which is the most important, is creativity. to be a brilliant scientist you need the ability to ask questions no-one thought about before, to question accepted realities and to combine acquired knowledge in unprecedented ways. if you're pushed to compromise your ability to question, the entire process of doing research loses its appeal.

sure lots of important research battles ancient questions, but also finding new interpretations of age-old theories is definitely a creative process. it is also a passionate process. all research innovations are made by those who think outside the box. (apologies for the blah terminology...)

the trend of doing interdisciplinary work receives much official support: the future of research is visioned in novel combinations and cross-sections of traditional disciplinary fields. the problem is that researchers are extremely possessive with their fields of expertise. asking questions that are untraditional is sometimes aggravation enough, but when posed by someone trained in an altogether different field, they are received with ridicule or considered almost blasphemous even when a basic knowledge of the field is more than explicit. researchers are very territorial, to put it mildly.

mastering two different fields is obviously demanding, but not at all unheard of. nevertheless, applying for a grant with an multidisciplinary topic is more often than not directed at only one of the fields it concerns leaving the applicant hanging on the graciousness of the evaluators' understanding. fairly often they receive a review saying the research proposal is too vague or not exactly in the target group. not asking the right questions, that is. our funding system is built to support rigid disciplinary boundaries and, thus, does not offer valuable space for the much lauded interdisciplinary work. the same applies to publishing forums and conferences where multidisciplinary ideas are often shunned upon. the politics of science protect the status quo despite claims otherwise.

i am not saying that every unorthodox question is worthy of exploring. i only mean that sometimes it takes someone marginal or a complete outsider to ask the questions that will enable a field of research to take the right direction. to demonstrate i will use an example of research in an area that touches most people including myself: cancer.

finding a cure for cancer must be the epitome of medical aspirations. cancer continues to confuse, confront and convulse us regardless of the vast amount of research time and funding used to understand why our cells all of a sudden start growing uncontrollably and, ultimately, suffocate our organs resulting in death.

finding a cure for cancer surely would diminish the amount of suffering amongst people. unfortunately we're nowhere near a breakthrough big enough to count as a cure. thanks to years of research we have many forms of treatment, but mortality rates have not diminished significantly.

it took an engineer with personal grief to question the balance of cancer research favoring finding a cure over the effort put into early detection methods. i found out about don listwin in an article in wired magazine. he witnessed his mother's fatal journey with cancer. his path was not unlike my own: both our mothers were misdiagnosed until there was fairly little that could be done. his mother was given antibiotics for bladder infections until her ovarian cancer was stage IV; mine visited her neurologist regularly due to a stroke some years ago, but her complaints were not interpreted correctly until she forgot my name and an aggressive tumor the size of a tennis ball was found in her temporal lobe. like all people dealing with cancer loss, i deal the best i can, but listwin, however, a wealthy cisco executive, left the company and a few years later started the canary foundation.

it is a well-established fact that most forms of cancer, if caught early, are treatable and survival rates are high. although many small breakthroughs offer more forms of treatment, the increases in survival rates are fairly insignificantly associated with better treatments. however pre-screenings, for example the pap smear screening women for early signs of cervical cancer, have diminished mortality by over a half.

the primary reason cancer is so fatal comes down to poor detection. when reaching stage III and IV (the scale used on most cancers is I-IV), mortality rates are crushingly high. nevertheless, over 90% of cancer research is targeted at finding late-stage treatments and drug development rather than diagnosis and early detection.

listwin asked the improbable and questioned the rationale of finding more treatments instead of creating methods of screening early signs of cancer in the body. if we were able to locate the proteins cancerous cells release in our bloodstream, the already existing treatments would save many lives. being an outsider in the business of medicine, he raised his voice with the aid of money: by recruiting the best oncologists, geneticists, biochemists and so on, he has created a non-profit research group in search of a pack of screening methods for the most common and deadliest malignancies. the improbable just got more so with the knowledge that listwin encourages results that are efficient and low-cost in order for them to be widely used.

imagine if melanomas, breast, pancreatic, lung and brain tumors could be screened at a relatively low cost from the entire population. what has become a reality with the pap smear and cervical cancer could happen with the most disastrous of cancers. mistaken diagnoses could become obsolete. receiving devastating prognoses talking about months to live could become a part of the sad history of human healthcare. imagine that.

nonetheless, finding a cure is still an important goal to reach. screenings will always fail to locate all people and all tumors. but locating cancer early is almost as good as finding a cure, and we need to ask ourselves: are we chasing the right chalice?

sometimes someone from the outside is needed to halt our quest for the grail and ask ourselves whether the quest is worth ignoring all else. examples like the canary foundation prove the worthiness of bringing novel viewpoints into an established field. although my own research was nowhere near as essential as cancer research, i had multidisciplinary ambitions similar to colleagues who were regularly left without funding.

the kinds of alterations in thinking that listwin is a prime example of hardly happen with the current style of research funding and promotion. i was lucky for the entire 7 years for having continuous grants and research positions, but i did not see potential for asking the questions i wanted to. i was by no means alone with my concerns but there wasn't a philanthropist like listwin in sight. hence, my choice to leave. the kinds of it is discouraging to note that the doors of academia are not exactly open to creativity.

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