Advice for a Young Investigator
Author: Santiago Ramon y Cajal
What are the foundations of a successful career in science? What are the prospects and challenges of research work? What are the personality temperaments conducive to experimental work? These are some of the questions the author of this book, a foremost neuroscientist and Nobel Prize winner, addresses in this book. Writing from his own experience of making groundbreaking discoveries in the backwaters of neuroscience, the author conveyed the sense of how passion and determination can overcome obstacles in the pursuit of worthy scientific objectives. The book is a powerful testament to the eminence of science, an enterprise the author inspiringly referred to as ‘the noble satisfaction of our curiosity‘, and the fulfilling reward of which is ‘the incomparable gratification and feeling of power that accompany the solving of a difficult problem‘. Whilst the author promoted the principle of cultivating science ‘for its own sake‘, he nevertheless frankly acknowledged the role of ambition and the quest for recognition as legitimate drivers of scientific accomplishments. Throughout the book the author projected science as an ever-evolving field pregnant with opportunities for making illuminating discoveries despite the advances that have already been made. By specifically dispelling the myth that ‘everything of major importance in the various areas of science has already been clarified’, the book encourages the young scientist that what remains to be discovered in any field far outnumber what have been, and many current scientific theories stand to be proven wrong (pages 12-14 and 19-20).
One of the major themes of the book is its exploration of the character traits which facilitate a successful research career. In this regard, perhaps the most important attribute the book highlighted is that of independent judgment – a quality shared by many ’eminent’ investigators. This characteristic, the author asserted, is indispensable if scientists are to avoid becoming ‘spellbound or overly impressed by the work of their predecessors’ thereby failing to ask the right questions and falling short of making the novel observations that engender major discoveries. Furthermore, the author cited independent judgment as a feature that unshackles the scientist from ‘excessive fondness for tradition‘ and from the ‘obstinate determination to maintain scientific formulations of the past‘ – two tendencies that limit scientific progress. A related character trait the author lauded is single-minded commitment or ‘total absorption‘ to problems, a disposition that is particularly critical during what he referred to as the ‘intellectual incubation period‘ – a phase that demands ‘severe abstention and renunciation‘ from distractions which can exhaust the ‘creative tension of the mind’. Other valuable attributes the author highlighted included intellectual curiosity, perseverance, devotion to truth, ‘a strong inclination toward originality, a taste for research, and a desire to experience the incomparable gratification associated with the act of discovery itself’. On the contrary, the author downplayed the importance of intellect and inherent skills by arguing that ‘mental gifts balanced enough to cope with everyday life’ are sufficient for anyone ‘to progress successfully along the road of investigation’ (page 23-48).
Whilst research is a hands-on practical enterprise, the author went to great lengths to emphasise that this requires depends on background expansive knowledge – both scientific and general. With regard to acquiring information that is directly related to the field of study, the author advised that ‘the wisest course is to complete a thorough review of the literature…before launching an analytical project‘; in doing this however, he advocated for moderation because of the risk that the scientist will ‘run aground on the shoal of encyclopedic learning‘. He also advised the young scientist to acquire a broad knowledge of ‘all those branches of science that are directly or indirectly related to the one of choice because they contain guiding principles or general methods of attack‘. Beyond learning the knowledge of the area of study, the author also advocated amassing a wider general knowledge such as of philosophy, a subject he maintained teaches the ‘criteria for truth and the standards of critical judgment‘, and ‘offers good preparation and excellent mental gymnastics for the laboratory worker’. He supported his recommendation for such diverse knowledge when he pointed out that many scientific breakthroughs were only made when data from different fields were brought together (pages 53-60).
The book’s most practical lessons were undoubtedly the tips and recommendations it advanced for carrying out research projects. An example is the author’s suggestion to young scientists to ‘tackle small problems first, so that if success smiles and strength increases, one may then undertake the great feat of investigation‘. Furthermore, he advised the young scientist to ‘view the problem in its simplest form…either during the development of the individual or in the evolution of the species’. As young scientists are unlikely to make groundbreaking discoveries early in their careers, the author suggested that they first consider addressing questions that previous studies have raised – what he called a ‘fertile ground for the young investigator’. Regarding the choice of appropriate methodology to answer specific research questions, he urged the scientist to master new techniques that have high resolution, noting that discovery is often ‘simply a matter of applying a recent technique to a problem that has lain dormant for some time’. He emphasised this further when he pointed out that new discoveries often emerge, not only from ‘patient and stubborn observation’ but also by using ‘better methods than our predecessors’, and by the ‘invention or improvement of a research method’ (page 71-72, 119, 80 and 65-66).
Some of the book’s most cautionary instructions related to the treatment of research data – what the author depicted as ‘our true resources, our real estate, and our best pedigree‘. In his most insightful assessment of this subject, the author urged young scientists to give data priority over their hypothesis, stressing that hypotheses should only be used as ‘inspiration during the planning stage of investigation, and for stimulating new fields of investigation’. When the hypothesis ‘does not fit the data’ however, he recommended that it be ‘mercilessly rejected‘. The author also warned against ‘any tendency to hasty judgment‘ when interpreting data; he rather advised the investigator to ‘repeat the experimentation in a hundred ways until we are certain that they are absolutely consistent‘. In a similar way, he advised against ‘premature publication of our observations’ especially if ‘our thoughts still waver between various conclusions‘ (pages 86 and 112-126).
Some of the most inspiring lessons the book conveyed relate to the habits that facilitate the attainment of a successful life in science. One of such helpful practices is what he calls ‘intellectual refreshment‘ – that is to take a rest or to travel when faced with difficult problems because these activities often enable creative solutions to emerge. He also encouraged the young scientist to leave room for luck, noting that the discovery of new methods often result by chance and by trial and error; he however urged scientists to ‘tempt their good luck‘ because chance and ‘fortunate accidents‘ tend to favour ‘great observers’ who ‘know how to pursue it with the necessary strength and perseverance‘. The book also highlighted other desirable traits which unabashedly included a burning desire for reputation, an ‘eagerness for approval and applause, and devotion to country – the latter because patriotism is ‘one of the emotions that should inspire the man of science’ (pages 29, 35, 41, 45, 66-70 and 75-88).
This book gives profound insights into the scientific process from a scientist who mastered it thoroughly enough to be rewarded with a Nobel Prize. He views research as an enterprise that requires total commitment but which carries the promise of personal satisfaction, success, and recognition. Some of his recommendations are understandably outdated, such as the merit of learning German, the language in which most scientific data of the time was published, but the principles behind his suggestions remain valid today. Some of his views also reflected a time when science was a male preoccupation. Perhaps as a result of his almost single-handed successful scientific career, the author did not emphasise collaborative work over individual solo efforts; this may also explain his rather anachronistic view of the pursuit of discovery as a competitive rather than a cooperative process.
This book is a treasure trove of advice and wise tips for any young person considering a career in science. Its approach to research is practical and insightful, and it is applicable across the range of scientific fields. Even though the book is rather antiquated, the contents are remarkably still cogent today for anyone embarking on the scientific enterprise. Written with an honest and passionate dedication to the scientific process, it is an invaluable guide to laboratory research work. It is eminently applicable to healthcare research, and I recommend it to all doctors.
Publisher, Place, Year: MIT Press, Massachussetts, 1999
Number of chapters: 9
Number of pages: 150
Star rating: 5