On the value of system detatchment

Jul 10 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

In a lot of ways this is a response to Meg's post yesterday about system envy in which, she and several commenters talk about the grass-is-greener feeling with other biological systems. Indeed, it's easy to go to talks and see what other people are doing and think "Man, that system has everything I would like to have in the one I'm working on!" One thing Meg points out is that, once you dig in however, every biological system has its warts. Her experience has been that delving into a single system has allowed her to pursue things that she might not even know where interesting if she didn't have the depth in that particular topic.

I have no doubt that is true and Meg's work certainly shows it. Lots of people spend careers learning the nuances of a single system and have produced some really elegant work. But let me propose a slightly different trajectory to trainees considering the direction their career might go.

Don't sweat the system, sweat the question.

One can make the argument that knowing the minutia of a system allows you to answer identify testable questions and I won't quibble with that. But, another way to skin the cat is to have a question and try to determine which system will best allow you to answer it. Rather than becoming logistically constrained into asking certain questions that your system of choice can support, this approach allows you to pick the best model for your question.

Best of all, it allows you to demonstrate similarities across independent groups that can tell you fundamental things you can't derive from sticking to a single taxon. As an evolutionary biologist, I am far more fascinated by independent events that result in the same final product because they tell a much broader story about what is important for that trait, once you strip away all the lineage-specific baggage.

This is why I encourage my trainees to take a non-linear career path. If you decide that you want to dedicate your life to ants, fair enough, but a lot of what I have seen as major advances have come from people bringing outside expertise into a novel system and turning things on their head or drawing broadly across life to zero in on core features.

So if you are in the training stages of your career, consider being a system nomad. If you are doing a Ph.D., think about a postdoc in a totally different system. Maybe you like ants, but what can what you learn from them tell you about moles or coral or phytoplankton or snails? How can your work in the field inform a lab-based system, or vice versa? You'll only know if there's a bigger question to tackle if have a broad enough understanding to recognize which systems give you the best opportunity to answer the question, rather than letting your system dictate the questions.

17 responses so far

  • DrugMonkey says:

    One concern with this approach is that scientists occasionally are most comfortable if they can easily figure out "what you do". There is also a thread that expects you to be "a", and eventually "the", world leader in X. Sadly it is often easier to communicate this via a single system in which you have worked deeply.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Yes, but "what you do" doesn't have to be system-centric. It can be the question you have focused on, across systems.

  • When it comes to my scientific approach, I have to admit I'm a have my cake and eat it too kind of girl. I have a field system I've worked in for (mumbles in hand) years. But if I can't answer my question w/ my system I go look for data or systems that do let me ask that question. As a result, I collaborate...a lot.

  • Nice piece! (Subtle about the ants.)

    There is a clear distinction between system-centrism and question-centrism. While almost all I've done has focused on one, rockin', taxonomic family, I've been equally mistaken for a behavioral ecologist, biogeographer, population biologist or community ecologist.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I'm not saying that one is better than the other, simply providing an alternative view (and I like ants). Like Morgan eluded to, there's plenty of gray area, as well. One can certainly have a system focus while using collaborations or "side" projects to work in other areas.

  • Drugmonkey puts his finger on the downside of the broad approach to science. I think it is harder (or at least takes longer) to develop a reputation if your work spreads across fields. Each field only sees a small fraction of what you do, thus the potential for less 'name recognition'.

  • Dave says:

    In an ideal (funding) world, one should be free to use the system that best addresses whatever your central question is, whether that be in cell culture, animals or ants. In the real world where a track record of using a particular system is viewed favorably - whether or not it best fits ones research - this is unrealistic. In my own experience of trying to obtain career development grants where you propose to switch systems or gain new training in another system to test a specific hypothesis, it is VERY difficult to get past traditional views of how science should be done......or what a career progression looks like in this sense. Not easy.

  • Dave says:

    ....but there are some legitimate reasons why reviewers like to see a track record, of course. It takes time and first-hand experience to know the strengths and weaknesses of a model system. If you don't know these boundaries, how do you know the model is appropriate etc? (playing devils advocate here)

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Morgan, certainly there are ways around this. It's not like we all go to system-specific meetings that require us to focus on only one of our projects. By focusing on a question for a talk, the multiple-example-of-the-same-phenomenon approach works quite well. You don't have to be the "crab lady" or "sloth dude".

    Really, Dave? You can't think of any examples in your field of people using more than a single model system or moving to new models in their career?

  • EcoNerd says:

    Agreed that there is not a right or wrong way to approach this, but PLS is right to point to the trade-offs between system- and question-centric approaches. That being said, I think the system-centric approach does allow one to integrate across different questions/sub-fields/processes in ways that are important. I can think of one colleague who only works in one type of system, but his work goes from behavior to foodwebs to biogeochemistry and often allows for novel insight into the inter-relationships among these processes. In contrast, asking similar questions in disparate systems allows the kind of synthesis that PLS identifies and that speaks to generalities that are equally important.

    Ultimately, these different approaches and their intermediaries are all necessary, and fields benefit from having scientists whose breadth occurs along different dimensions.

  • MCA says:

    A key aspect is "how long does it take to become proficient in a new system?"

    I switch systems like crazy, but it's easy for me because the techniques in my field are *extremely* broadly applicable across taxa, with little to no new learning curve (some tools literally are "point and shoot", notably high-speed cameras). Other people's fields and techniques aren't so forgiving or easy to transfer.

  • Dave says:

    Really, Dave? You can't think of any examples in your field of people using more than a single model system or moving to new models in their career?

    Of course lots of people use different systems (I would say I'm one of them). It is just not the easiest thing in the world to switch, at least from a grant application perspective.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    It can be easy for reviewers of your career, grants, etc to not see the same connecting themes that you see, as you use diverse models to address a question. That's all I'm saying.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Of course lots of people use different systems (I would say I'm one of them). It is just not the easiest thing in the world to switch, at least from a grant application perspective.

    A glass-half-full response would be that, in this climate, having multiple systems to work from gives one more potential proposals to submit that will still get at the lab's core question.

  • [...] current conversation about model systems and the benefits of being a scientific specialist or generalist has been interesting, and I thought I’d join in. (This post was written for a while, but [...]

  • […] - I focused on two major themes, with sub-projects. IMHO, I think the lab has erred a bit on the side of two many projects, than too few, but as is my wont. So far it has worked and kept us open to a variety of funding mechanisms. Is it sustainable? We'll see. Maybe no one will ever figure out what I do. […]

  • […] am a huge fan of taking a diverse approach to one's research question. My lab has had success working across different system and focusing on […]

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