Department of Medicine
School of Medicine Queen's University

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A Career in Research: The Elevator Speech

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My colleague and Rheumatologist extraordinaire, Dr. Mala Joneja (left) asked, “Would I care to comment on Research and say something inspirational to open the Department of Medicine’s Resident Research Day?” Not being one to shy away from expressing my views on research, I accepted.

It was a wonderful day with dozens of young physicians presenting their research, and they acquitted themselves well. The topics extended from cancer and cystic fibrosis to new educational tools. There were studies from most of the disciplines represented within the Department. Proud mentors looked on (did I see their lips moving in synch with their mentees’ speeches?). The judges, Drs. Paula James, Amer Johri and Anne Ellis flagged down the occasional rogue overtime speaker with a fluttering warning size, one minute left and then STOP!

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Dr. Genevieve Digby

 The audience was highly interactive. Questions were raised and feedback provided.

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Dr. Hoshiar Abdollah, mid-question

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Dr. Marina Lerner

Entering a career in research

Here are my thoughts on research, suitable for a three-minute introduction. I call this my elevator speech. A friend in Chicago taught me this term. The elevator speech is the quick headline you tell your boss when he/she asks you, “What are you up to?” It is meant to be quick, concise and to convey your big idea before you exit the elevator and your boss glides on upward to the penthouse. With that introduction, here are my thoughts on research for Medical Residents considering a career with a significant research component.

Research is a disruptive process of discovery conducted by skeptical scientists who believe the conventional wisdom is wrong, or at least incomplete. The questions may be practical or exotic but in the process of testing a hypothesis, the ball of knowledge is almost always moved a little further down the field. Over the ages researchers have often found themselves on the wrong side of state and church. Research challenges governments and religions, putting the sun in the center, revealing the relatedness of humans and animals and even allowing manipulation of our genetic code.

In the past scientists were defenestrated, excommunicated and mocked. In the modern era, scientists have been more often lionized for their discoveries, which have lifted us into space, developed treatments for many lethal diseases, given us unprecedented creature comforts and prolonged longevity. However, even now science in Canada is under threat with insufficient funding and an ill-informed government agenda to prioritize research, which is ‘practical’ in the very short term.

Each of you has the potential to perform research, to discover, to perfect and in so doing to enrich your community, country and make a contribution to future generations. It matters not whether the questions you ask are of the molecular, physiologic, medical, ethical, or historical genre. If your question is precisely framed, the measurements and analysis rigorous, and you let the data speak without bias you are treading the scientific trail.

It’s not easy to be a scientist in an era where fewer than one in five grants is funded. It is particularly difficult to live the divided life of a clinician-scientist, answering both to the patient and the scientific muse.

Of course, not all scientists are inspired and being ‘in the game’ does not make you a genius. A certain rare combination of talents is required for truly great discovery. As Denis Diderot, French enlightenment philosopher and author noted in the mid 18th century, summarizing how we discover:

“We have three principal means: observation of nature, reflection, and experiment. Observation gathers the facts, reflection combines them, and experiment verifies the result of the combination. It is essential that the observation of nature be assiduous, that reflection be profound, and that experimentation be exact. Rarely does one see these abilities in combination. And so, creative geniuses are not common.” Denis Diderot, Pensees sur l’interpretation de la nature 1753, XV

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For your efforts, conducted in the wee hours and often presented to wee audiences, you will garner that great satisfaction of knowing how things work, of knowing things that others do not and of changing how we understand our world. You may face rejection, skepticism and perhaps ridicule. In defense of your sanity seek out supportive environments that value discovery and innovation. If you are at the beginning of your journey, find a mentor; there’s too much to learn on one’s own. A mentor can give you a sober critique of your approach and your science; often delivering the clear message to change course or improve quality. At all stages of your career, find collaborators and groups of colleagues with whom you can discuss, refine, reject and perfect ideas. Scientific discovery whether epidemiologic, clinical, qualitative, translational or molecular builds on the shoulders of fellow scientists who preceded us. As Stella Didacus (Diego de Estella) noted in the mid 16th century,

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Pygmaeos gigantum humeris impositos, plusquam ipsos gigantes videre.
(Dwarfs on the shoulders of giants see further than the giants themselves)

Research is about independence, honesty and a belief in the value of fumbling toward a distant truth that may be more than a lifetime’s journey. Science is not about prizes, it is not guided by politicians or clerics, it is not defensive of its errors and it is not the possession of one people, one country or one gender. The best of scientific spirits knows that the high impact discovery of 2013 will be at best partially correct a century on, and more often than not a source of amusement for future generations.

Today is a celebration of your research efforts. Your mentors are proud of you and, as Department Head, I am inspired by your enthusiasm. Today you join scientists through the ages and perhaps share the common experience of Discovery, as summarized by Albert Einstein,

“In the light of knowledge attained, the happy achievement seems almost a matter of course, and any intelligent student can grasp it without too much trouble.  But the years of anxious searching in the dark, with their intense longing, their alterations of confidence and exhaustion, and the final emergence into the light – only those who have themselves experienced it can understand that.”

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Dr. Archer, Dept. Head
Dr. Archer, Dept. Head