Of medical and scientific research
Research, discovery and human benefit
While a flu-like illness caused me to miss the deadline for my column two weeks ago, it gave me time to reflect on a recent conversation I had with two specialists in blood diseases, Drs. Ade Olujohungbe and Donald Houston of the University of Manitoba Faculty of Medicine. Both are keen on doing further research on thalassemia – an inherited blood disorder seen among Southeast Asians – to ascertain the magnitude of its occurrence in our local Filipino population and to explore the clinical significance of new findings. Identification of this inherited trait could help prevent unwelcome clinical problems in affected individuals. The discovery of new information could also have help influence public health policy to the collective benefit our Filipino community.
This brought me to thinking about medical and scientific research in general. Indeed, the resulting advances from research over the past 150 years have increased the longevity and quality of life. Recall the major human benefits of discoveries – vaccines against influenza, measles, polio, smallpox and other common childhood diseases, antibiotics to treat infectious diseases, insulin treatment for diabetes, new drugs to manage high blood pressure and AIDS, effective treatments for cancer, vitamins for nutrient-specific deficiency diseases and new micro-surgical techniques. Yet, many more challenges remain.
A visit to my home library
With these thoughts, I re-read two collections in my library: The Art of Scientific Investigation by Dr. William Beveridge of Cambridge University and Dr. Paul Parsons’ Science in 100 Key Breakthroughs. Dr.Parsons writes of life science’s “cutting-edge breakthroughs that are transforming our understanding of life itself” and mentions the mapping in 2003, not quite a decade ago, of the human genome, “the genetic code that underpins the human species.” The science of new genetics, often called genomics, promises newer tests and treatments to help address the remaining medical challenges.
The Art of Scientific Investigation – a paperback given to me nearly 30 years ago by a colleague at the University of Arizona College of Medicine where I spent a sabbatical year as a Visiting Professor of Pediatrics in the Research Laboratory of Dr. Lynn Taussig – is about the theory and the practice of scientific and medical research. A small present with lifelong value, it made for fascinating reading then and has continued to fascinate me whenever I re-read its pages.
First, what is research?
It simply means “the search for new knowledge.” The simplicity of its purpose belies its complexity as a human activity. It is not uncommon that talk of medical research and scientific investigation causes one’s mind to think and visualize of experimenters dressed in white lab coat working with guinea-pigs and of elaborate apparatus. Such stereotyping could lead one to forget that “the most important instrument in research must always be the mind of man [and woman].”
My pre-occupation is to reach out to the non-researchers and non-scientists interested in the process of thinking and practice of scientific investigation, the community at large whose participation would do much to enhance the body of medical and scientific knowledge, and the youth considering a career in science or medicine and their parents, grandparents and teachers whose influencing presence we would like to co-opt.
Pearls of wisdom and science guide
As parents, grandparents and particularly teachers guide the youth, they may wish to heed the following pearls of wisdom from the giants in research:
- Cultivate good methods in selecting the problem for investigation by ascertaining the present state of knowledge, breaking the problem into questions and planning how to go about addressing them;
- Bring the youth to a science-fair environment and special research lectures; such experiences will give them inspiration and deepen their understanding of research and;
- Provide them educational contact with researchers and thereby help them to think and write clearly and concisely and to develop in them a better grasp of results – to see the woods rather than the trees.
Researchers, scientists and the rest of us
“Probably the two most essential attributes for the research worker are a love of science and an insatiable curiosity,” wrote Dr. W.I.B. Beveridge. “Further prerequisites for success in research, as in nearly all walks of life,”he continued, include “a good intelligence, internal drive, willingness to work hard, imagination and tenacity of purpose.” Such attributes “enable one to persist in the face of repeated frustrations” during one’s scientific pursuit, just as we need them when we encounter obstacles during our respective individual life journey.
Indeed, the paperback is filled with lessons applicable to everyday living and reflective of our common humanity. Let us ponder on a few:
“The joy I felt at the prospect before me of being the instrument destined to take away from the world one of its greatest calamities… was so excessive that I sometimes found myself in a kind of reverie,” said Edward Jenner, discoverer of the vaccine against smallpox, on the thrill of joy of a discovery.
Louis Pasteur, who invented the process of pasteurisation of milk, wrote, “Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal. My only strength lies in my tenacity” – an apt commentary on perseverance and courage.
Here’s Isaac Newton, the physicist who formulated the Three Laws of Motion, reflecting on humility of a scientist: “I know not what I may appear to the world but to myself I appear to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
Asking himself what would he wish to the youth of his country who devote themselves to science, I.P. Pavlov, who created the science of conditioned reflexes, he answered: “Firstly, gradualness. …Never begin the subsequent without mastering the preceding… Secondly, modesty. Do not allow haughtiness to take you in possession. Due to that, you will be obstinate where it is necessary to agree; you will refuse useful and friendly help, you will lose your objectiveness. Thirdly, passion. Remember that science demands from a man all his life.”
I conclude on the spirit of research – that genuine feel for the good of humanity – by quoting from the book of the same title by Thorburn Brailsford Robertson, a biochemist /physiologist who once chaired the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Toronto: “It is not the talents we possess so much as the use we make of them that counts in the progress of the world.” How true!
The Honourable Dr. Rey D. Pagtakhan, a retired lung specialist and University of Manitoba Professor of Pediatrics and Child Health and former Member of Parliament and senior cabinet minister, is widely published and has lectured in Medicine and Politics. He has been the recipient of several honours and awards, including the honorary Doctor of Science and Doctor of Laws, and is listed in the Canadian Who’s Who.