What came first, the study system or the research question?

Disclaimer: In this post, I write about research approaches of other scientists based on my (fallible) memory.  My apologies if I accidentally misunderstood or have misrepresented any conversations/presentations, etc.   Take everything in this post with a grain or two of salt.

Last year, when my supervisor asked me what I would be doing during my first term at McGill (before I had ever even seen a coral reef in real life), I replied that I would be reading and planning my project.  What was his response?

“Just remember, we study ecosystems, not books.”

As far as I can tell, inspiration for research projects can arrive by two major paths.  The first, as espoused to me by my supervisor, is to spend time in an ecosystem or with a study animal that interests you, make observations, and try to see if there are patterns or phenomena that can be explored and explained.  We’ve seen over the duration of this course that this can lead to some beautiful, fascinating research projects- for example, why do capuchins have such big brains when maintaining brain tissue is so energetically costly?  Why are there so many near-identical plants in a tropical forest?  Why do vampire bats feed one another?

Alternatively, you can take the opposite tack: find a research question that interests you, and then decide which study system is logistically amenable to answering that question.  Dr. Ehab Abouheif, a scientist who studies phenotypic plasticity in ants, described to us a meeting with his supervisor which illustrates this method perfectly: he sat down, told his supervisor what he was interested in, and together they came up with a list of requirements.  His research organisms had to be small enough to raise in a lab, had to exhibit certain behaviours, etc. etc.  After producing what sounds like a rather long list of conditions, they brainstormed until they came up with their ideal study organism: ants.  This approach led to decades of innovative and exciting research, which we were lucky enough to hear about when Dr. Abouheif visited our little schoolhouse and blew our collective minds.

When thinking about this dichotomy, I asked myself how I came up with my research projects so far.  I remembered my first night ever doing real ecological research (in intertidal seagrass meadows at the 3 AM low tide), when the grad student I was assisting told me to pay attention to what I saw and think about research I could do myself.  I think my (silent) thoughts were something along the lines of

“I’m looking at a bunch of wet grass in the pitch fucking dark, what exactly is there to think about?”

Four years later, here I am.  I believe my thought process has become significantly more sophisticated since that night at Crescent Beach.


P.S. I sure hope we’re allowed to curse in these blog posts.  Sorry Owen.



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