Being Realistic About Research
Research is often shrouded in mystery; prevailing stereotypes depict mad geniuses performing mysterious miracles in their labs. Occasionally stereotypes have a grain of truth. After speaking with a tenured professor within the Chemistry department, Dr. Lauren Webb, I gained a deeper sense of the nature behind research. She explores the difficulties and the rewards of research throughout her experiences.
Dr. Webb focuses specifically on physical chemistry. She has recently been working on a project that measures the Coulombic forces between enzymes and proteins in order better understand potential drugs that can help stop proliferation of cells in cancer.
She started out in Bowdoin College where each department had one professor to maintain it. Within her undergraduate years, she became intrigued by research, delving into the possibilities it entertained.
In such an environment, where the departments were very small in comparison to UT, she says, “As far as day-to-day solving problems and figuring things out, I was independent.”
She believes it is this sort of independence that acclimated her to research as a whole. She says, “You’re going to be independent and you’re going to be solving problems on your own. And that’s ultimately what research is about.”
There’s nothing wrong with independence. All college students embrace it with love and excitement. The problem comes when you think in terms of the responsibility of managing things on your own.
Within research, you have to gruel through the problem on your own. You can’t get the answers from Slader or look in the back of the book. You have to endure the confusion and the frustration to get to a result that may or may not mean anything.
In class, the professor or TA will ask a question, and you know there’s an answer. Within research, there may or may not be an answer.
This sort of open-ended limbo of solutions accompanies research. Dr. Webb addresses this issue by bringing in as many perspectives into her lab as possible “because each new field brings a new type of solution.” This combination of diverse approaches leads to fruitful collaboration.
Research is not a group project though. Dr. Webb elaborates that “If you haven’t learned to think for yourself and work by yourself then research will not be driven forward and collaboration will not help.”
Very often you will be working in a lab and through problems alone, with guidance but no one to hold your hand.
When asked what moment she thought of to capture the essence of research, Webb stated that is was “at 2 AM or so working in the lab, pulling my hair out.” The frustration of how slow research is and the enormity of the problem that is being tackled can make the prospect unappealing to some.
Webb explains a difficult part of research is “the lack of immediate results. A paper could be published, and you don’t start hearing back about it until four months later.” Research will strain and stretch your patience; it will test your dedication to the project you’re focusing on.
This can be best explained by a distinction between passion and obsession. When I asked Dr. Webb why she was passionate about research, she told me she was not. She was obsessed. Whenever the word passion was used to describe something, she imagined this sort of “frolicking through a meadow” mentality. The word “passion” just “made it seem so easy.”
Research is not easy. Webb explains that she is obsessed with research more than she is passionate about it. The tenured professor who published over forty articles on her research and has won numerous awards states “It’s just hard.”
She follows this obsession because she “has to get to the bottom of it.” Her curiosity drives her forward into pursuing something that she gruelingly loves.
Alas, research is not for the faint of heart.