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Cake, Computers and Curiosity (or, How Science-based PhD Students Survive)

Happy Thursday, everyone!

I’m experiencing one of those weeks from hell in work. You know the type – nothing’s going right; steps you hadn’t even considered a potential problem go awry… But, rather than throwing my computer out of the window in a fit of pique, I thought I’d channel my frustration into remembering why I’m doing my PhD in the first place. The result is this post, which I imagine will resonate with quite a lot of scientists out there! Enjoy!

One simple computer command with the tiniest of mistakes and one tap of the ‘Return’ key on my keyboard. That was all it took to erase the files I’d spent over a week creating. But, wait – a backup of the server existed. I was saved! Then I found out that the last backup was made before the files were created.

Scones

The perfect cure for stress: Scones with clotted cream and jam! (Photo credit: hijukal)

Cake was eaten; tea was drunk; and I won’t deny there was some tutting (we are British after all, dear). That was externally. Internally, my mind was a maelstrom of what can only be described as some of the fruitier epithets in the English language!

Regrettably, such experiences are not uncommon in the life of a PhD student. As a lecturer in my department tweeted in response to this latest setback, it’s “all part of the PhD process”. This inalienable truth is what, after nearly three years, I’ve finally learned to accept. My own project has, after all, afforded me many opportunities to ponder it.

I’m studying a human parasite called Entamoeba histolytica. It causes Amoebiasis, a disease characterised by symptoms ranging from mild diarrhoea to fatal liver abscesses. The problem is that nobody quite knows what triggers the different symptoms.

I’m comparing E. histolytica’s genes with those of its harmless relatives to find out which genes the killer has that the others don’t. As only E. histolytica causes Amoebiasis, it’s likely that some of the genes required for the disease’s progress will be in that exclusive gene set. I’m hoping to identify a list of genes potentially responsible for causing Amoebiasis that future medicines might target.

Curious George (Photo Credit: PBS and 'Cool Spotters')

Curious George – perfect, if mischievous, PhD student material! (Photo Credit: PBS and ‘Cool Spotters’)

My day-to-day life involves growing cells, extracting their DNA to have it read, or ‘sequenced’, and sifting through the mountains of data this produces on my computer. I’ve had cultures die for no discernible reason other than sheer bloody-mindedness; I’ve had DNA sequences yield data less useful than the Chinese Olympic badminton team; and I’ve spent weeks chipping away at data files to get to the result-filled goodness within, only to find that the results are about as interesting as a Dido album played at half-speed!

So why do I do it? Why do any of us? What drags PhD students up from the ground when our experiments leave us on our posteriors again and again? One word: ‘curiosity’.

No great scientist has ever carried out research for the money or for something to do. Hell, no mediocre scientist has! You simply cannot forge a career in science without being interested in, and enthused by, your research.

If we weren’t interested in reaching that elusive breakthrough we’d surely give up! A PhD isn’t like a normal job – for starters, we work bizarre hours and tasks take months to complete with little reward during that time. It’s our curiosity that gets us through the harder times. I know that, without mine, I couldn’t have created those files all over again to see if I’d discovered anything useful. I hadn’t…. But tomorrow’s another day and the allure of a new idea and possible success will inevitably drag me out of bed to try again!

 
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Posted by on July 11, 2013 in Non-science posts

 

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