Guest post by Heather Cassell
Sometimes it happens when I’m reading a research paper, sometimes when I’m doing an experiment, analysing data or learning a new technique; or more often when I’m reading Twitter. It’s that moment when you discover something new and interesting, or re-discover a fact that you used to know, and it makes you pause and think ‘ooh, that’s interesting’. For me the discovery usually leads to a massive detour into reading things other than those I was meant to be reading or working on, but I always learn something from it and sometimes it’s actually relevant to my work. Whether it directly affects research or not, the ‘ooh, that’s interesting’ moment is at the heart of scientific investigation.
It can be great when it happens during an experiment, but it can also be deeply frustrating. An unexpected result forces you to seriously consider what is happening and to plan more experiments to further examine the anomaly. This encourages you to combine techniques, make use of all of the resources at your disposal or even seek out new collaborators. If the anomalous result is reliably proved correct and reproducible, then you will need to do more research to explain it. At its best, this is a very exciting time as you will get to learn new skills, create new knowledge and develop partnerships. At its worst, it can shatter your previous assumptions or even show that your idea or product is not as good as you think.
Personally, I really enjoy the flurry of activity associated with learning something new, especially a new experimental technique. I was recently involved with some experiments using atomic force microscopy (AFM) – I had a vague idea of what it was but I had never used this technique before. The analysis produced some amazing pictures but I had no idea what they meant, so I spent an enjoyable afternoon learning all about how AFM works and comparing the results we produced with results already published. The next time we used the machine I could analyse the images as they were formed, which was really helpful for determining if it was showing what we wanted or not. The ‘ooh, that’s interesting’ moment had provided the push I needed to learn a new skill.
Outside the lab, I really love spending time on Twitter. With so many scientists (and non-scientists) from different fields providing links to articles and blogs, there’s always more than enough to read. Just 10 minutes reading tweets can leave me with countless browser tabs open and new favourites to read. It’s now easier than ever to share your ‘ooh, that’s interesting’ moments with the world, meaning a tweet from a researcher half way across the globe can inspire new ways to think about my own research.
It is this process of discovery and continuous learning that is one of the main things I love about science. Now, back to Twitter…
UPDATE: To avoid confusion: eating lots of tomatoes will not stop you getting prostate cancer if other risk factors are in place!
At least 20 years ago I wrote a news story in my rookie days about how the natural red pigment in tomatoes, the antioxidant lycopene, could somehow protect men against prostate cancer. Nothing was ever proven and the latest news which hit the tabloids in the last couple of weeks doesn’t add much, at least if you read between the lines.
NHS Choices, as ever, has a good summary:
“This large study has shown an association between the consumption of more than 10 portions of tomatoes per week and an 18% reduction in risk of prostate cancer. However, as this was a case controlled study, and not a randomised controlled trial, it cannot prove that eating more tomatoes prevents prostate cancer.”
The study does have some strengths: large size and accounting for confounding factors. However, limitations include: reliance on dietary questionnaires and the broad categories for self-estimate of body size. After all, do you recall how many portions of tomatoes you’ve had and can honestly tell us how fat or thin you are?
The bottom line NHS Choices says:
“This study does not provide enough evidence to change the recommendations for reducing the risk of prostate cancer. A healthy, balanced diet, regular exercise and stopping smoking are still the way to go, rather than relying on eating one exclusive food type such as tomatoes.”
Incidentally, from this paper: “Prostate cancer (PCa) represents a major public health burden in the western world. It is a peculiar disease as more men die with it than from it. Also interestingly, PCa was virtually unknown until the 20th century.”