One of the cool, under-the-radar programs the Society for Neuroscience offers during its annual conference is Meet the Experts, where top scientists volunteer to take any and all questions, mostly from grad students and postdocs. The researchers explain a bit about their work, but more about how they got to where they did and what they see in the field today. I attended two chats and wish I could have gone to more; they were an intriguing glimpse into how science is done, behind the posters, formal lectures, and symposia.
Fred “Rusty” Gage claimed that he didn’t have a lot of formal career advice for grad students—”I didn’t make any plans,” he said, following paths that interested him though they crossed disciplines. But he did have plenty to say on targeting research and dealing with criticism.
Ignore ad hominem attacks, he said, but “if it’s a good criticism, like ‘why couldn’t it be this?’ then design your next experiment to answer that question.” For example, “nobody believed that axons could sprout after damage,” but persistent experimentation has made believers of us all.
On the other hand, some discoveries seem to garner the opposite reaction. Gage said that because of his work showing the brain does, indeed, grow new neurons, he feels responsible for the misunderstanding that all neurogenesis must be good, or that more is better. Not all new cells end up where they should, and there are suggestions that maladapted new neurons might lead to disease.
“With neurogenesis, we’re now about finding out what, in fact, it’s doing,” he said. We do not know what will happen if you put stem cells here or there in a person’s body or brain, despite claims by people trying to sell “stem-cell-based” products, Gage said.
Paul Glimcher’s career has crossed from neuroscience lab to economists’ sphere, and now science and social policy, and he was ready to give advice. “What I do… is really new, and most of the people who do it are your age, and are struggling,” he told us.
To be taken seriously as a scientist, you have to know the science; and to be taken seriously as an economist or specialist in any other field, you have to know that discipline just as well. Not to mention knowing the ‘secret handshakes’ the fields use to show in-group. “It’s really hard to become an interdisciplinary scholar, and reading The Economist won’t get you there.”
The goal, from a neuro-grad student’s perspective, is “to be able to teach economics, to see their argument and love it and repeat it—and disagree,” he said. Glimcher disagreed with one questioner’s description of his role as being a bridge between disciplines: “Don’t imagine you’re the bridge, but on both shores. If you stand in the middle, then everybody hates you.” Instead, you want everyone—economists, scientists, all and sundry—to think you are “one of us.”
Glimcher himself is pretty sturdily on both beaches, having advanced degrees or faculty positions in neuroscience and economics, but even after steeping himself in these disciplines, he can get tripped up. He told us this story: Giving introductions of researchers before they spoke to economists, he would always describe their grad work, postdoc, the usual sciencey spiel. Finally, one of the economists came up to him after one such intro, and said, ‘why do you always mention their postdocs? It must be embarrassing for them.’
Turns out that while a postdoc is common in science, among economists it’s a sign of failure—the person washed out of his first employment search and had to go back for retooling. Glimcher had inadvertently been telling all the economists that the people about to give a talk to them weren’t up to snuff. Now he explains what postdoc means when he gives intros. “You’ve got to take seriously the need you have for deep learning, and the need you have for a guide,” a mentor in the second field as well as the first.
A new shore he’s braving is policy, “the most interesting frontier right now,” he said. “We mostly worry about curing disease,” but when you move into social sciences, you find “they worry about culture, society, values. There’s a lot of crossover here.” He cited differences in how social scientists and neuroscientists define risk, as in teenagers’ risky behavior. On the opposite span of life, how does what we have learned about the reduction in good decision-making among older people affect how we design our public systems of insurance or retirement planning. For one, “the average elder should not be making investment decisions ontheir own,” he said.
Even younger people have trouble deciding when they must choose among hundreds or thousands of options. “We were able to predict the curse of choice, qualitatively,” he said. They suggested setting the choices up as elimination trials—ask people what they like least, “eliminate from below rather than pick from above,” so by the time only a few choices are left they are all pretty good.
One caveat to doing research in policy, though: “As soon as you start doing policy, you’ll start to get a result you don’t like.” Do not suppress that finding, he warned, it will come back to bite you (and your policy leanings). Also, it’s increasingly likely that people will find policy implications in your research, even if you don’t want them to yet—especially when you feel it’s “too soon,” he said, echoing Gage’s comments. Both Gage and Glimcher are members of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives.
“You have to remember, sometimes stuff will come out that you don’t want to come out,” Glimcher said. “We as neuroscientists have been spared this (social-policy) debate. But with your generation, we’ll start to face this.”
For another take on what young neuroscientists face, see UCSD labs’ Daft Punk-tinged video “Get Data.”