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How to Tell If You Might Be a Scientist (Eight Risk Factors)

Twa, Michael D.

doi: 10.1097/OPX.0000000000001150
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Sense, Think

Observe, Explore, Learn

Read, Wonder, Question, Imagine

Challenge, Create, Dare, Design, Measure

Resolve, Share, Listen, Enlighten

Encourage, Inspire, Teach

Embody, Guide


Science is the process of knowledge discovery, and it is through this process that we accumulate the facts that represent our current understanding of the world around us. It is open to everyone with a critical eye, a curious and creative mind, and a skeptical demeanor. The following attributes are an incomplete list of traits possessed by many who practice the art of discovery and are driven to pursue a deeper, clearer understanding of the world. Have a look, reflect honestly, and consider whether these descriptions fit or inspire you. New participants are always welcome.

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Science is difficult by design; it is a bit like trying to guess the contents of a sealed box. With limited information, most of the time, it will go wrong. There are many ways to approach a problem like this and avoid frustration, but a certain amount of enthusiasm for the puzzle is required. Individuals find motivation in many different forms that keep the quest alive. For some, it is the prospect of the solution, or destination that helps keep the pursuit interesting. For others, it is the process of seeking the answer that is engaging—careful planning, abstract reasoning, incremental technical accomplishments. In discovery of any type, there are challenges, frustrations, and failures. The key is to be eager and enthusiastic throughout the pursuit and despite inevitable obstacles.

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Science is about establishing facts; that is, positively identifying that object in the sealed box. Facts are determined through measurements of observable phenomena. Some observations are straightforward, for example, height, weight, temperature, pressure, and so on, whereas others require inventing new scales or technology to specify our observations, for example, grading corneal staining, 1 matching ocular prosthesis, 2 or describing meibomian gland atrophy. 3

Discovery can be as much about the phenomenon of interest as it is about the development of the methods or tools required to observe and quantify the object of interest. For example, optical coherence tomography is a sophisticated new sensing technology revolutionizing our understanding of retinal anatomy and pathophysiology. It is enabling discoveries through novel in vivo observations and measurements and there is ongoing discovery and innovation that continues to drive development of this imaging technology and its clinical applications. Optical coherence technology is a great tool that has opened wide, new ways to ask and answer clinical research questions.

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Questions are essential. Faith, comfort, and acceptance of common beliefs and practices are antithetical to the scientific mind. Science requires facts and evidence that should be weighed with a wary eye. Scientists must know and resist their own biases and prejudices, as these are the filters that will prevent seeing clearly and interpreting facts with objectivity and reason. To quote Tim Minchin, a well-known artist, musician, actor, humorist, and commentator on the human condition:

“…We must think critically, and not just about the ideas of others. Be hard on your beliefs. Take them out on the veranda and hit them with a cricket bat…. Most of societies' arguments are kept alive by a failure to acknowledge nuance. We tend to generate false dichotomies and then try to argue one point by using two entirely different sets of assumptions. Like two tennis players trying to win a match by hitting beautifully executed shots from either end of separate tennis courts.”

Have an open mind, but challenge dogma and the assumptions that constrain our current understanding. One's thought, views, and behavior are the complex sum of genetics, cumulative experiences, and other bits that define you. Remember that no one else has a better view into that black box, and your ideas on how to see and understand the puzzle may just be the right combination needed to see solutions where others have failed.

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Never stop learning. Read everything. Learn as much as you can about as much as you can. You never know what could spark the insight necessary to solve the problem or answer the questions in front of you.

It has been said that a couple of months in the laboratory can frequently save a couple of hours in the library—Frank Westheimer. Become proficient at finding and using existing knowledge. Moreover, get deeply acquainted with the contemporary and historical thoughts that define your field. Digital archives make information more accessible than ever. Learn how to access information and how to determine its worth and interpret its relevance and meaning.

“…Too many scholars think of research as purely a cerebral pursuit. If we do nothing with the knowledge we gain, then we have wasted our study. Books can store information better than we can—what we do that books cannot is interpret. So if one is not going to draw conclusions, then one might as well just leave the information in the texts. —Brandon Sanderson”

And do not limit what you read to your own discipline. Analogical reasoning is a powerful way to see the same information from a different perspective. New insights on old problems can emerge from learning how others think, reason, and solve problems, while scientific advances can come fortuitously, to quote Louis Pasteur, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

Writing is difficult for most people, and yet it is a necessity in science. Writing is as essential to scholarship as reading, and both take practice, time, thought, and effort. One of Stephen King's most useful books for scholars is far from his usual genre and unknown to most of his readers. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is an interesting look into the mind of one of the most prolific writers of our time, and it is reassuring to learn that even successful writers begin with many of the same challenges. 4

“…There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” ─Ernest Hemingway”

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Questions are the beginning of any scientific exploration. Seeing things simply and wonderfully (as children often do) can bring sparks of innovation. Unfortunately, formal education and training can get in the way of one's ability to ask good questions. Years ago, I was listening to an interview with a creative writer who was asked about his source of creativity. After a pause to reflect, his reply was: “Boredom. Either I have nothing to do and I begin putting ideas together in new ways, or I just get tired of doing the same thing in the same way and decide to try something different.” Dare to ask questions and try new approaches. Set aside time to think; give yourself the freedom and permission to focus uninterrupted so that you can try to see challenges in different ways. Imagine what you could do if you were to schedule some time without any screens or devices.

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“…If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. —Isaac Newton”

There are few truly original discoveries or entirely new ideas. Be a scholar and know the history of the field you choose to investigate. Most science is incremental, building upon a foundation laid by those who came before. Be mindful of those who have created paths, and recognize the many different sources of inspiration and support, such as time invested by teachers and mentors, funding support from any source. Be generous with acknowledgements, and humble in accepting credit for accomplishments.

Failures are another source of humility in science. Discovery is not always a neat and tidy business, and valuable lessons can be learned from the failures of others. Be willing to share your mistakes; it can be helpful to others and especially reassuring to students grappling with the beginnings of a challenging career.

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Teaching is the transfer of knowledge to others; it is also kindling the desire to learn. Time invested in teaching is a valuable investment in the future. Inspire the next generation; we need them! It is not an overstatement to say that inspiring others to think critically and scientifically could change history. Many discoveries are some fortunate combination of the right person, in the right place, at the right time. It is hard to know where the next major scientific discovery may come from. Sowing the seeds of inspiration is a good deed that can have unforeseen benefits. What could we achieve if a larger proportion of the population were trained to think and act like scientists?

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Although science can be a highly competitive endeavor, it does not preclude generosity, support, or encouragement toward others. If we wish to reap the rewards of science, we must seek to increase the number of people who think and act as scientists do. Moreover, we must not place unnecessary barriers for them. We should celebrate scientific accomplishments with the same reverence given to athletic performances. To advance our discipline, we should recognize excellence and expect that our best students will carry on. Most important scientific challenges span a career, a lifetime, or more. If you truly care about your field of investigation, consider what you can do to advance science in general and your field in particular, even after you are gone. Cultivate your successors.

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1. Sorbara L, Peterson R, Schneider S, et al. Comparison between Live and Photographed Slit Lamp Grading of Corneal Staining. Optom Vis Sci 2015;92:312–7.
2. Dave TV, Kumar S, Vasanthalin J, et al. Development and Validation of a Grading Scale for Custom Ocular Prosthesis. Optom Vis Sci 2016;93:1426–30.
3. Ngo W, Srinivasan S, Schulze M, et al. Repeatability of Grading Meibomian Gland Dropout Using Two Infrared Systems. Optom Vis Sci 2014;91:658–67.
4. King S. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner; 2000.
© 2017 American Academy of Optometry