Systems thinking for the win

How to choose a good research topic

A little something for the lab workers.  I listened to Uri Alon while I was doing my PhD.  He’s phenomenal, with over 38,000 citations and an unmatched string of research papers.

What he said is pretty well summarized here.  Much of it is fairly self-explanatory – the importance of taking your time to properly define what is going on, to make sure that it is a problem that is both feasible and interesting.  However, the real gold in the paper is this diagram:

The lost need to be carefully managed
Systems based cloud thinking that leads to top-notch research


The point is that you start off at point and hope to prove or disprove point B.   Somewhere along the way, it all goes to the dogs, you find yourself lost and confused and depressed.  Happens to us all.  Alon calls this “the cloud”.

The important thing is then to find what the research is actually taking you towards, point C.  Science is full of chance lines of discovery, but these chance discoveries did not come about in the same way that winning a raffle is “chance”.  They came about because attentive researchers noticed something off about their data, saw a faint hint – and followed where it would lead.

In essence, effective researchers are continually re-inventing and re-defining their research problem.  The new data that comes along the way gets included in the repeated search, the re-search, for a good topic and goal.  This is systems thinking.  It is why it is so effective.

For younger members, it is crucial that they have guidance during that time “in the cloud”, because they are likely never to have gotten into it before, and need others advice on how to get out of it.


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