Many research strategies, developed inside large research institutions, don’t work well in small teaching-centered institutions.
One of these strategies, I suggest, is the use of a biological model system.
What do I mean by model systems? Any system, used in multiple laboratories, that has been optimized for a broad variety of lab investigations. I’m thinking of zebrafish, Drosophila, mice, C. elegans, E. coli, Arabidopsis, and honey bees. For the ant people, this includes Temnothorax.
It might seem counterintuitive that model systems can prevent you from getting research done in a teaching-centered institution. After all, these model systems were developed, in part, to make research easier and remove methodological barriers experienced by those working in a broad variety of organisms.
Even though model organisms are easy to work with, have lots of standardized methods, and a massive bank of potential collaborators, the costs and risks of working with a model system far outweigh the benefits and the opportunities.
My initial thought on this topic came from observation. I don’t see much research on model systems getting done within teaching institutions. I also have seen a variety of people, who work on model systems in teaching institutions, experience substantial challenges that have kept them from getting work done. Here’s a list of problems that I’ve seen crop up for those using model systems in teaching institutions.
- The low-hanging fruit has been picked. In model systems, the things which are a combination of easy and obvious have already been done. That only leaves things which are either difficult, requiring particularly deep insight, or trivial.
- Model systems have intense competition. In model systems, many labs compete rather than collaborate. A small lab in a teaching institution isn’t built to deal with this kind of competition. This doesn’t mean that you should avoid competition by working on minutia, but it also means that you shouldn’t choose an avenue that has high pressure competition. As any ecologist will tell you, competition is an interaction which has a negative effect on both parties. (An economist will tell you the same thing, though it’s better for the consumer).
- You might get scooped. The probability that someone is doing exactly what you are working on is higher in a model system.
- Collaborating is difficult. The labs that run model systems typically have lots of routine methods happening like clockwork, run by technicians and students who have become specialized in the model system. If you’re working on this model system, you are not likely to be able to contribute anything of substance to a big lab, which could do the same thing much more quickly than you could offer. Collaboration is easier if you have a specific resource or skills that others want or need, and that’s harder from a teaching institution if you work in a model system.
- You may become isolated. In the community of people working in model systems, if you have a small undergraduate lab you’re more likely to be overlooked by your peers. I’m not sure how or why this is the case, but it’s what I’ve observed on several occasions. Everyone I know who has worked on a model system wasn’t well integrated into the community of frenemies that works on the system. It’s hard to have a scientific impact if you are unrecognized by your peers.
- The bar for evidence is very high. Peer review is more likely to be rough and demanding. People with model systems tend to be territorial, and especially if you’re not perceived as a competitor that can bite back with teeth, then at least one reviewer is likely to go the extra mile to find something wrong with what you’ve done.
- The minimum publishable unit is greater. If you’re working in a model system, odds are that the big labs working in the field are able to heavily replicate their experiments, and sandwich multiple experiments together into a paper. This establishes a standard for a large volume of data in a paper. I’m not arguing that you should seek to publish as soon as you have enough data for any kind of publication. However, if you have a genuine, interesting, and cool finding and want to get it out for everybody to read, it’s a bummer to have others telling you that you that it’s ready for publication because you don’t have a mountain of data.
- Maintaining colonies takes continuous effort. Mustering any kind of consistent student work in the lab is a success. You don’t want your success in long-term student research to be squandered on the maintenance of lab colonies of a model system. You want to work on a system in which students can dive in and collect actual data, rather than spending all of their time keeping critters fed, clean, reproductive and healthy. Also, you want to be free to disappear for long periods of time, and not chained to the lab to maintain your organisms.
So why would one ever work with a model organism? One great reason would be to provide lots of valuable hands-on laboratory experiences to students. But in my observation, this kind of approach is a poor recipe for completing original research in a teaching institution.
In my opinion, if we are giving students research training, that means we’re giving them research training. Which means that they’re doing research, and research is something that ends up in new findings that are shared with the scientific community. If you want to give a genuine research experience to students, then you need to regularly publish the work that you are doing. From my vantage point, it’s very difficult to do this while working with a model system in a teaching institution.
I have a couple other alternative explanations for the (perceived) phenomenon that researchers working on model systems in teaching institution have a harder time publishing their work. The first alternative is that I’m just wrong, and that my experiences or perceptions aren’t representative or accurate.
The second alternative is that less research is completed because of the use of strategies from R1 labs that don’t translate to a teaching institution. Most people at teaching institutions, who work on model systems, are continuing with their dissertation system, I think. The research approaches from a dissertation lab probably don’t translate well to a teaching institution. I haven’t spent much time inside the labs of teaching institution professors using model systems, so I don’t know how they run things on a day-to-day basis, and am not too sure about this.
Do you think that it’s hard to get research done on a model system at a teaching institution? Did you switch into one, or out of one, to get research done? Thinking about it?
Note: This is a repost of a post from August 2013. It did have good comments back then, by the way. I’m posting this because a) most of you haven’t seen this; b) I still think it’s a valid argument and a point to ponder; c) it’s interesting to see how my writing style for this site has evolved – I think I’m a much better writer now than I was then; d) Sabbatical has been busier than non-sabbatical and I’ve got lots of posts I’m excited to write, but not at this moment.