By Megan Cooley
This January, I attended the Kansas IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (KINBRE) conference; the keynote speaker was Dr. Muneesh Tewari. His keynote mainly focused around the utilization of tumor-derived microRNAs as blood-based biomarkers for cancer, an idea that many fellow researchers thought was not realistic based on the stability of the biomarker.
But it was the second half of his talk that piqued my interest. When describing the events that inspired his groundbreaking research, he mentioned his imagination was stimulated by an instrument on the old Star Trek episodes: the tricorder. This brought me back to the first day of Analytical Chemistry class during my second semester in my undergraduate degree. The professor popped up an image of a tricorder and asked, “Who can tell me what this is?” Not being a Star Trek follower, I had no idea what it was…some box with buttons and a screen. As it turns out, this futuristic device was/is to be a symbol of what we as analytical chemists and scientists in general are supposed to strive to develop. An all-in-one detection system that you simply wave in front of a person, object, or environment and it tells you exactly what illness you have or what you are being exposed to. That’s great! How do we get there? That’s less obvious. How does one go about developing this analytical tricorder? Curious minds want to know!
As scientists, we know that a good portion of our work and advancement is based on building and formulating logical conclusions from what has been proven previously. Of course, every once in a while, several blocks are laid simultaneously, and we are ushered into new insights and perspectives. So how do those who make the “leaps” do it? Some of it can be an innocent mistake. For example, in The Philadelphia Chromosome, the author writes about the process behind development of the first gene-based cancer therapy. In one phase, researchers knew that there was likely a kinase responsible for driving the unregulated growth associated with cancer cells, but it was not the usual suspects (serine or threonine kinases). Months were spent trying to target this protein to understand how this cancer was metastasizing. A grad student came in on the weekend, and not wanting to belabor the time in the lab that day, he just reused a buffer that he had previously made. Turns out the pH in the buffer had changed over time to the point where the tyrosine kinase they had been searching so hard for was finally expressed. The inhibition of this kinase became a critical factor in regulating and curing chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). We can’t rely on mistakes to solve the problems, but we have to be open to examine other avenues.
As I progress through my career, it appears the ability to be objective and look at alternatives is something that can be lost over time. It is only expected that as we learn, we are creating an in-depth set of knowledge and skills to become experts within our disciplines. Being experts does allow us to critically evaluate our systems and our outcomes, but perhaps it limits us to the subtleties that more easily creates “leaps.” Probably one of the most obvious ways to step out of your comfort zone is to throw yourself into something completely new. In these instances, we are being challenged mentally through learning, at which point creativity is likely at its peak because we are not sure about the limitations of what we are learning. So when given the chance to be challenged, or work outside of your comfort zone, take that opportunity to try something new. You will have to reinvent yourself many times throughout your career, so get used to change and starting again. And while you’re at it, set your phasers to stun and try to have some fun.
A special thanks to Robert G. Bell for his help with this piece.