August 11, 2007

Time-tested science

A publication for every fact, a life for every arrow.

This is just something I've been pondering for a while... all throughout my studies, I come across piles and piles of research which must be quickly "triaged" into a read, file, or discard category. So much research goes into each simple little fact in a textbook, demonstrating a link from A->B. Someone could devote their entire life towards this modest goal, because there are so many different methods of experimentation!

My embryology teacher in undergrad put it best as "show it, block it, move it."

  1. Show it: First things first. You need to run epidemiological studies, immunofluorescence studies, etc. to show that a certain gene/enzyme/disease/factor is present in association with whatever you're studying. And you need to do assays, dig through piles of charts, or run huge randomized polls of selected populations...

  2. Block it: Then, you can stop it. This can be tricky in some cases. You need to demonstrate that a disease/condition/observation disappears in the absence of the variable you're tweaking.

  3. Move it: Then, you can move it. Can you create the disease/condition/gene product with the modest introduction of your tweak somewhere else? This is the most ethically questionable of the three principle study designs, since you cannot induce diseases in humans and expect to get away with it. Often, animal studies are performed with the hope that it can apply to other models as well.

Three simple concepts. Yet the execution of them can take trial after trial, assay after assay, tons of paperwork to get funding and support and recognition.

I'm surprised sometimes that scientific progress hasn't halted altogether, given the amount of work, time and money it requires. I have a great appreciation for the unsung heroes of the laboratory whose obscure brilliance might only be recognized by a super-select few. (Few? Can I even use that as a noun? It sounds okay to me.)

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