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Science in Focus: Abby M. Hodges


What I Wish I Had Known, Part 1

The delight of interdisciplinary problem-solving.

[Editor's Note: For this month, we asked three scientists what they wished they had known when they were taking their first steps toward a life in science—reflections that may be helpful to students who are themselves just starting out, and perhaps to their professors as well.]

What I Wish I Had Known About Science

Students considering a career in the sciences regularly mention the stereotype of a scientist alone in a lab. I too remember wondering, as an outgoing and involved undergraduate, if I could "survive" the solitary nature of lab work in grad school. My undergraduate research experience at my small liberal arts school confirmed how quiet a lab could be all day long. With only one other student doing work in my lab that summer, I craved conversation with my roommates every evening after returning home.

What I wish I had known about science when I was choosing my career is how central the community of scientists is to the progress of science. All aspects of the practice of doing science are carried out with input from fellow scientists. Research labs function best when the scientists are working as a team—offering expertise, discussing unexpected results, helping with technically demanding experiments. Lab meetings where data are filtered through the knowledge and experiences of ten different scientists typically result in exciting new interpretations and questions to direct future research. Long days (or nights) when an experiment doesn't work, a paper gets rejected, or a grant deadline looms are made bearable by the camaraderie of a fellow researcher performing a cutting-edge experiment on the next bench over and sharing her results.

Additionally, the community of scientists works together to ensure that the science we are funding, carrying out, and publishing is of the highest quality—in accuracy, integrity, and importance. While grant funding agencies, management teams, and journal editors often deliver rejections of a project we have poured our lives into, we all appreciate working in a field that requires and self-regulates a consistent level of excellence.

My favorite activity of my workweek is my lab meeting on Fridays with the four undergraduates who are currently on my research team. We discuss the progress of the week, troubleshoot together, and plan for new questions and experiments. My students help each other, rejoice in each other's successful results, and commiserate when the same experiment doesn't work again. We all leave the meeting more motivated and ready to continue on in the hard work of moving science forward. Science is hardly a solitary undertaking; rather, it requires and is enriched by being performed within a community.

What I Wish I Had Known About Chemical Biology

As an incoming college freshman, I faced the challenge of picking a major. I enjoyed studying lots of things in high school, but I knew that I excelled in and enjoyed science (although physics was definitely not my strength!). As I explored biology and chemistry during my first few years of college, I was interested in biological topics, but preferred the analytical and quantitative nature of chemistry. Expecting biochemistry to be the perfect marriage, I was surprised when the course just didn't excite me as I had hoped. Biochemistry—the study of the chemistry behind biological processes—was just too narrow for me and didn't use quite enough of the problem-solving that I loved so much in organic chemistry class.

What I wish I had known about at the time was chemical biology—an interdisciplinary sub-field that uses the techniques, ways of thinking, and quantitative methods from chemistry to address pressing biological questions in new and innovative ways. Chemical biology allows me to solve problems like a chemist, but to address problems in biology that are interesting and unique. Chemical biology is a hybrid including bioorganic chemistry, cell biology, medicinal chemistry, and biochemistry. My graduate school lab had organic chemists, molecular biologists, biophysicists, biochemists, and an MD/PhD! This merging of expertise and skills can lead to occasional communication barriers (the MD and the organic chemists did things VERY differently!), but more often generates new ideas and solutions as well as new and larger questions to be answered.

Working in an interdisciplinary field has allowed me to collaborate with very creative and innovative scientists. Rather than simply exploring a system using already available tools, chemical biologists seek out the questions that aren't being answered due to a lack of technology—and then develop new tools to expand the field in previously unavailable ways. Inventing techniques to answer novel questions requires scientists to think outside known parameters and allows them to tinker with well-established instruments so that they can be used in different ways. Scientists who simply like to follow rules need not apply!

Additionally, interdisciplinary fields require a scientist to be continually learning. All scientists are learning the new developments in their field, but in interdisciplinary work, I am regularly learning new fields!! Graduate school afforded me the opportunity to learn both synthetic organic chemistry skills and extensive cell culture processes. This of course presents its own challenges as I try to gain expertise in a variety of fields. However, my desire to do a little bit of everything is fully satisfied working as a chemical biologist.

Finally, I love being at the forefront of drawing connections between two different areas of research. Getting to work with biologists and chemists simultaneously—figuring out how each approaches problems differently and then using the best from both—is energizing and motivating. And when interdisciplinary research is combined with a topic that is growing and changing and making a difference in people's lives, going to work each day is just a little more exciting.

Abby M. Hodges is assistant professor of chemistry at Azusa Pacific University.

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