“But wait!” Great Ideas and the Odd Observation
When you finish an experiment and the results support your hypothesis, you are probably having a good day in the lab. But when the unexpected happens and you step back, shake your head, and take another puzzled look, GREAT!
Great scientists—those at the tip of the arrow—do not simply repeat and verify others’ work. They create new concepts. These out-of-the-box thinkers see the world differently. When others see mold and say, “We have to cut that out,” the Alexander Flemings of the world say, “But wait! Why are no microorganisms growing there?”
From the “odd observation,” penicillin was born.
Many of the groundbreaking ideas in medicine began in “but wait!” moments. My first encounter with the odd observation phenomenon was in my teens, after I maneuvered my way into the research lab of a prominent Cleveland heart surgeon. I suspected the artificial heart valves of the day were damaging red blood cells, so I got permission to study blood from dogs that had the valves. The next step was practicing with human blood drawn from the heart-lung bypass machine when patients were undergoing open-heart surgery. Because of my school schedule, preparing the blood took more time than I had in any given day. So I would start the process, incubate the cells overnight, and pick up again the next day.
Some of the cells looked deformed after overnight incubation. So I repeated the experiment with blood that had not been through the machine. Those cells were normal. I had set out to prove that human blood was being damaged by artificial heart valves, but by happenstance, awareness, and curiosity—the odd observation—discovered that, while human blood cells were indeed being damaged, the bypass machines were the real culprits.
This discovery and a resulting research paper were largely responsible for jump-starting my medical education and career. Perhaps more importantly, this early experience taught me to notice and embrace the unexpected outcome.
Artists, designers, and architects sometimes toss an element of surprise into an otherwise well-ordered work— a splash of unexpected color, a slightly unnerving off-balance placement, a distraction that entertains. Scientists should take note. While our work demands linear, reproducible methods and systems, anyone embarking on a scientific career must recognize that the path is circuitous. We must stay open to new concepts and changes in course. Something can be learned in the color, tilt, and distraction trying to catch our eye. For great scientists, the world of research is full of contrast and contradiction. Great scientists are prepared to swim upstream when colleagues say, “It’s impossible.” They are willing to design experiments to disprove what they believe, knowing that in failure there is evidence that what they believe may be real. And while scientific principles and procedures may be rigid and unbending, great scientists remain playful, resilient, and open to any outcome.
It is easy to become enthused about the possibilities of a great idea but hard to foresee its limitations. Within the past 20 years, molecular biology, gene therapy, and the sequencing of the human genome were expected to revolutionize the practice of medicine. Each has been helpful, but all have fallen short of expectations. Stem cells and nanomedicine are today’s hot topics. We have great hope for these and other technologies but must remain cautious: Biological systems tend to be far more complex than we sometimes allow ourselves to believe.
My best advice to new scientists is to enjoy the challenges, have fun, and plan to change the world. But wait! It may not be in the way you expect.