This past Tuesday marked the end of my Foundation in Biological Sciences courses (FiBS) as part of my graduate curriculum at BU. I can’t say I will miss those 7+ hours of FiBS lectures every week, but I am thankful they have helped me transition into a PhD student. These courses expose you to the basics of what current research has found and what tools you have available to continue research. You learn the experiments and results of great scientists who have won Nobel Prizes for their contributions. I have realized that scientific research requires enormous creativity.
To find out answers to how a cell works, which is obviously on a level too small to observe directly, you have to create clever tools that will act as your eyes into the cell. And because what you “see” is not always what actually is, you must also create adequate controls, or baseline comparisons, that hold your visualization technique up to a test of accuracy. The reasoning in the experimenter’s head, e.g. adding input A creates output B, may have unforeseen intruders that are actually responsible for output B or unexpected results. Controls in experiments let you know with the most certainty possible that the result you measured were because of what you did, and not because of an extraneous variable.
This kind of diligence to quality control in science makes the process arduous, but also simplifies it. With the strict control measures, although possibly taxing and definitely time consuming, you can easily read the facts of your experiment and know how to proceed. If you keep studying the wrong conditions that you think give you the results you want, but really are not responsible for the results, you will waste time, resources, and much effort not only for yourself, but from other scientists who use your findings and try to build upon them.
The importance of quality control in science cannot be stressed enough. I believe one extremely unfortunate example of misleading science that has put people in danger is the “bad science” that claimed autism was linked to vaccines. From my perspective, this inadequate study claimed causation where there was only correlation. One reason this may have happened is that children are diagnosed with autism at the same age (1-3 years old) when their immune systems are matured enough to receive vaccines. Thus, it was observed that children are diagnosed with autism around the same time they are receiving immunizations. This observation has been thoroughly researched by many scientists and studied in millions of children, and many scientists believe the conclusion is simply a correlation – a coincidence. The cause of autism is still unknown. Unfortunately, the emotional component of this topic still has led many parents to decide not vaccinate their children.
Recent outbreaks of measles in the U.S., a disease that was before considered eradicated, are forcing parents to reevaluate where they get their information from, and if they should be resisting doctor’s recommendations because of opinions and anecdotes they have heard. I believe the real problem with vaccination being an option in the parent’s control is that children who are too young to receive vaccines and children in situations of immune compromise, such as receiving chemotherapy treatment for childhood cancers, have no option but to rely on the children around them to not be infected with disease and therefore not spread it. When you are lucky enough to live in the U.S. where vaccines are available and science is very advanced, I hope you get to take advantage of our medical privileges that keep us safe.