Do you want to fill in the pieces or jump into a hole?

I’ve just come to realize that my approach to finding a research project is maybe too … systematic. Over the last few weeks I did a lot targeted reading focusing on a single protein, looking for an angle or a question that I could center my PhD around. As has  been my experience with other projects, when it comes to molecular biology the details are blurry – at best!

That is to be expected. With so many different model systems, methods, research angels or viewpoints, putting together a complete picture from the literature is almost impossible. In the end, I always feel like “alright, we need to know this and this and that in this particular system. Let’s get to work!”.

Now I’ve reached this point regarding that particular protein: I’ve identified the missing pieces of the puzzle (in the context of my organism) and I’m ready to go looking. Not so fast. My supervisor suggested I looked into a few other proteins with completely different functions as well. I did.

Now it’s clear that this is an area with potential. Not only are there pieces missing, the puzzle is pretty much non-existent and nothing has been published in the context of my organism. It feels like I’m staring into a big black hole. Is that a good thing?

The “filling in” strategy is simple. There’s a lot of work to build on and designing experiments is relatively straight forward. The goal is clear. But what do you end up with? One of my professors asked me that about such a paper once.
“Is it just another brick in the wall?”
Yes.
Filling in might mean putting in the missing brick. On the other hand, jumping into a big black hole is risky. I wouldn’t know where to start or even if it can be done, and the results? They could be awesome, revealing something of major importance, laying the groundwork for a completely new and exciting wall … or they could turn out to be an extension of some other old wall. Or worse: no results at all.

What would you do when starting a new project:
filling in missing pieces?
Or take the plunge and jump?

After all, it might be that it’s the metaphor that is the problem. Whatever your initial strategy, research has a way of coming alive and choose its own directions – you are just along for the ride. And most importantly, this is not something you do alone. For colleagues, supervisors and collaborators, the black hole could be the next logical step.

… I think I’ll ask them that over the weekend…!

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