What is Research?
“Researchers develop new process for Alzheimer’s treatment.” We see headlines like this nearly everyday in our newspapers, on our Twitter feeds, and in scientific journals around the world. It feels almost mundane now to read about all of the amazing advances these researchers are making, from genetic medicine to quantum computing. Many of us are only exposed to the end result; what is often lost in translation is the actual methods these scientists employ to bring us new technology. ‘Research’ becomes almost a magical process by which one must simply put in enough money to get progress. But the truth behind research is far more nuanced than that - and for college students starting to get into research, understanding these nuanced details is critical for both their success and happiness in the field.
It is first important to discuss just how creative researchers must be. Remember, these people are working on the absolute edge of human knowledge. Discovering something previously unknown, especially in today’s world, takes a crafty experiment or a new, highly complex model. In a classroom, you are taught what has already been discovered; in the lab, it falls upon you to add to that knowledge. There is no road-map to follow and certainly no midterms to pass.
The open ended nature of research leads to a sad truth - progress is painfully slow. Many researchers go months or years without a single breakthrough or successful experiment. Grasping for truth in the darkness is no easy task, and scientists know this all too well. At times, you must work with no clear goal in sight, experimenting with science for no reason other than to experiment.
Michael Faraday is a prime example of this. As a scientist in the Royal Society of London in the 1830s, Faraday was given nearly free reign to experiment with electromagnetism. From this freedom came one of the most important discoveries in human history. After wrapping two insulated copper wires around an iron ring, Faraday found that by moving a magnet through the iron ring he could produce a current in the copper wires. He had discovered a fundamental truth about electromagnetism: a changing magnetic field produces an electric field.
Faraday’s discoveries laid the foundation for our modern electronic world, from electrical generators to motors. His efforts were largely responsible for electricity becoming practical for use in technology. However, Faraday had no way of knowing what the future would hold for his research; he was a scientist, doing what scientists do best: experimenting. Faraday’s work was research at its finest.
It would be foolish, however, to ignore the time span over which Faraday made his discoveries. He was active in the science community for well over a decade before his famous iron ring experiment, yet he was never discouraged. This is the most important aspect of any researcher: the ability to remain optimistic even in the face of overwhelming failure. For any student hoping to get into research, it is important to always keep this in mind. Research is not for everyone - it is not easy, fast, or glamorous. But just as Faraday finally got his “aha” moment, so too will you. Research is not about changing the world today; it is about creating a world for tomorrow.