Thursday, 15 March 2012

Death by Anticipation

The article that won last year's Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize (as of today, they're accepting submissions for this year's round) was on the so-called 'Nocebo effect'- an unpleasant version of the placebo effect that instead of curing you, kills you. This comes as no real surprise: we've all fallen sick after a big deadline or exam (Have we? Or is it just me?). And beyond common knowledge, scientists have known for a while now that your state of mind can have a tangible impact on your health, by causing the release of neurochemicals/hormones that directly impact various systems in your body. For example, thinking stressful thoughts can cause our stress hormones to surge, and chronically high levels of these hormones have a multitude of harmful effects on your body and brain. But can you actually die by believing you're going to? Are your thoughts really that powerful?

I thought this was especially interesting since I had just been asked to translate a story from Arabic that had a similar theme. It's 'whispered tale', a spoken story from a Lebanese village, written down word for word the way it was spoken. I've decided to include it here, with credit to the brilliant Sabine Choukeir, who gave me the story to translate. I must say, a lot of the poetry and humour is lost in translation, but at least this gives you the gist of the story. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

*    *     *

Selim in Purgatory

There was a man from Bekaa named Selim
Selim fell into a coma.
He was in a coma for a month, two months, three months, four months, then he woke up.
He came back to life completely I mean.

They say that while he was in a coma
He saw people in Purgatory who he knew from before, and people he met while he was there
And you, why are you here? And you, why are you here? You haven’t been dead for long.
And one told him that he had stolen five cents from a widow
One said because I cursed the dead
One said because I did a bad deed
And such stories and tales

And they swore on the Virgin Mary and Heaven and all the angels that this story was 100% true
And that he saw all these people in reality
And they told him go, it is not your turn
Your turn is after the parish priest, Father Mirshid
And the priest at that time was 60 or 65 years old
So Selim rose from his coma and came back to life
And was living like a dream

Every time someone in the village got sick he asked who who who?
He was worried it might be the priest
They told him your turn is after Father Mirshid
Every day he inquired about the Father
Every time the funeral bells rang in the village
Who, the priest?
No, God be thanked, he was relieved
Every time they told him the priest is unwell
Selim would feel unwell and stressed and his stomach would hurt and he would cringe
And every time the Father grew older by a day, the worry grew with it
And every time the Father’s worries grew heavier, Selim’s worries would grow heavier with them

One day
The priest started to deteriorate
His situation worsened and he was suffering
And he neared death
And our friend Selim was crying and breaking down
And he neared death

And then one day there were two garages that they were roofing
And his house was over the road and they were roofing the garages over the road
I mean there was a main road between the garages and his house
He had twenty workers and they were pouring cement on the roofs
The bell tolled
And they said Father Mirshid died
He left the cement spade on the ground
And said stop, I don’t want a roof and I don’t want to work I want to live these last few days
Beside my wife
And he’s crossing the road to go home
It’s over, my life has ended

A Volvo car was passing
With metal rods for construction in the back of the car
He had put them in the back of the car
He did not have a pick-up
And one of the rods was sticking out of the back like a hand
Selim waited until the car passed
So he could run home
The rod caught his leg
And the people were shouting at the driver
And the driver had just recently learned how to drive
Hey hey hey Milhem
Milhem Shehade was his name
And Milhem did not see and did not hear
He kept dragging him a distance like here and the market down there
And he did not know
And our friend did not sneeze

The two of them died on the same day
And they buried them in the same hour

*   *   *

Thursday, 1 March 2012

The Case Against Hard Work

Science is hard work. We spend  long hours in the lab and get frustrated when things don't work out.  It's all part of being in science, and we put up with it because we love science. But I say we've got it all backwards. 

Why does science have to be hard work? When things don't work out, the solution is not to work harder and do more experiments. The most important step is to think out your experiment properly. You need to read the literature. You need to identify a problem/question that is novel and interesting. You need to come up with a good idea on how to solve/answer it. You need to figure out an efficient way to conduct the experiment within the limitations and methods that are available to you. Then you need to plan your experiment, draw up a schedule, order/book/check the equipment and materials you need, make sure everything is available ready to go. Then you need to conduct the experiment in an organised, calm, accurate, and correct way. And then, you need to analyse and interpret the results, and think about how they fit into the big picture. 
This is the beauty of the scientific process; and it’s not just about lab work. The lab work is only a small part of it, and not even the most important part. The most important part is coming up with a good question. Because you could do all the experiments in the world and then find out you’ve answered an uninteresting, irrelevant question. Or even worse- a question that has already been answered. Significant does not mean interesting. And as I was reminded in the pub the other night, contrary to popular belief: not significant does not mean not interesting.

The first problem is that as PhD students, we tend to rely on our supervisors to do that first bit for us. And we completely trust them to be coming up with questions that are novel and interesting. This is frequently not the case. We turn into lab-robots, making up solutions and doing the pipetting, but having little say on what it is we’re working on. When, at the end of it all, we find that there was a problem with the original question, it becomes our fault.

The second problem is that the way we conduct experiments is often not optimal. A lot of the time, the methods and protocols we use are whatever we’ve been taught to use. When we are focused on producing as many results as possible before the weekly lab-meeting, we end up not caring  too much whether our methodology is optimal.

The third, and biggest problem, is 'publish or perish'. If it were up to me, I’d ban this expression from the scientific dictionary. Could there be anything more negative, more counter-productive, more stress-inducing than the idea that there’s no point to any of your work unless it gets published? It just zaps all the fun  and excitement out of science. It also threatens to undermine scientific honesty and integrity. Publication is supposed to be for 1) peer review and 2) dissemination. Instead, it has become a scientist’s lifeline, and I know that that’s the system and we're not going to change it. But I do think we need to straighten out our priorities. Instead of viewing the lab as a publication-printing-press, we need to take a step back and take a critical look at the science.  It is much more important to conduct a good experiment that answers an important question. And if you do that, there shouldn’t be any problem in getting it published anyway. And you can 'publish and flourish' then without anyone doing any nasty perishing.