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Learning what I don’t know as a scientist

When I was at a party recently, someone who isn’t a scientist asked me what I do. I said that I study how cancer cells take up sugar (my overly simplistic elevator pitch). The next question was, “So does eating sugar cause cancer?” I hemmed and hawwed. Finally, I said, "Well... that depends."

I hesitated because biomedical researchers typically don’t work on something that broad. For most of us, our day-to-day work consists of asking very specific questions that have an answer. This is, in fact, a crucial part of any good researcher’s training – how to ask the most well-defined questions so that when we discover an answer, it is believable. While we don’t want to lose the forest for the trees, we’d like to hope that if we understand a tree — or even a leaf — really well, we’ll be in better shape to understand the forest.

More importantly, any rigorous scientific training will also teach you how to investigate the validity of research. Some of the toughest – and therefore, the most valuable – cross-examination of my work has come from my peers and the research groups I've participated in. Before my PhD thesis defense, I begged my labmates to ask me the most difficult questions they could possibly think of, knowing that they were doing me a favor.

The ability to think critically is a skill set that extends far beyond academia. In principle, this means that when we conduct biomedical research, we are aware of what we can and cannot say about the disease or the remedy that we are studying. When the questions we are asking are about human health, it becomes even more important to truly think about what we’re claiming – and to be sure that our data support those claims.

The truth is that most scientists will tell you how little we really know, particularly when it comes to human health and the diseases that we still don’t understand well. One of the first things I learned when I started out as a researcher in radiation oncology was how mind-blowingly complex the set of diseases known as cancer is, and how many different ways there are to reach a cancerous state. Even as someone who had done research before, it was incredibly humbling to read the literature and comprehend, well, our lack of comprehension. Not that we haven’t made great progress in understanding cancer and other diseases — we have and we continue to progress. But to me, it is precisely when we know what we don’t know that we can figure out the right questions to ask.

Therefore, the simplest, most general questions, are often the hardest ones to answer. At the party, I answered that eating a bunch of sugar all the time is probably not great for your health. We have some clues as to the answer, but will we ever know for sure if sugar consumption causes cancer? Well, that depends.

Debanti Sengupta completed her PhD in chemistry from Stanford in 2012. She is currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Radiation Oncology. Follow her on Twitter @debantisengupta. 

Photo by PDPics

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