Questions That Keep Scientists Up at Night

Congregations of scientists are necessary for the advancement of the field; it provides a space for the sharing of ideas, offers opportunity for collaboration, and allows for arguments on the very nature of our universe. It should therefore be of little surprise that the gathering of sixteen graduate students and assorted lecturers for the Tropical Integrative Biology course spawned numerous fierce debates. As scientists, gathering data is second only to coffee, so after much contention, results were voted upon (who would have guessed for Gamboa to be the last bastion of democracy on Earth). Presented here are a few of these debates, their arguments, and their results.

 

Question: would you rather be bitten by a venomous snake and die, or be eaten by a boa constrictor?

Venomous snake: 12

Boa constrictor: 6

The first question posed at-large proved to be the most volatile, as arguments over each side lasted several days. Initially, there was an illusory appeal to the venomous snake not causing death, as the species is never specified, and so there was hope in running to a hospital for antivenom. It was arbitrarily decided that this was distinctly unfair and so death was included. However, there was still too much variability in both sides with regards to the time that this death would take, so it was standardized to one hour after a few days of dispute. While the questions were never detailed enough to specify species, there are few enough snakes with venom potent enough to kill within the hour that little was left to imagination (the king cobra and inland taipan are two such possibilities). Ultimately, most votes were settled by the notion that death by constriction or digestion are worse fates than death by paralyzing or internally combusting venomous toxins.

 

Question: would you rather be a captive vampire bat depending on regurgitated blood, or a CRISPR-mutated Heliconius butterfly in captivity?

Bat: 7

Butterfly: 7

After a couple days studying Heliconius and the genetic modifications in wing patterns achieved by CRISPR-driven mutations, and a night spent looking at bats and learning of the local vampire bat colony, there was plenty of nightmare fuel, at least among a couple graduate students. This debate thus was initially driven by which animal was thought of as less abhorrent, which quite strongly decided a few votes. Afterwards, the debate began around whether a life in captivity drinking regurgitated blood meals is any kind of life at all, until one realizes that the Heliconius, fabulous as its novel wing pattern may be, is similarly trapped. On the other hand, there was a prevailing notion that an individual who became a mutated butterfly might find its picture on the way to the cover of Nature, further demonstrating the great lengths scientists will go to in order to appear in the journal. Finally, the argument flipped in favor of the bats again as undecided voters realized that these mutated butterflies may not be preferentially selected as mates – and what is life without sex?

 

Question: if you became what you researched, would you change it?

Yes: 5

No: 9

One of the final debates of the course was rather introspective, a brief moment of soul searching before blanching in horror at what could be found and retreating to the comfort of constructed reality. As can be observed in the vote, most scientists are so utterly obsessed with their subjects of study, be they humans or birds or mangroves that the thought of being one is without concern. For a select few, this question poses a mechanistic problem – what does a bioinformatician become? The decisiveness of most sampled researchers in their willingness to turn into their own research interests may be cause for concern to the sane individual, but a scientist looks at this data and questions the life choices of those individuals apparently uninterested in their research while simultaneously downing their fifth cup of coffee in preparation for grant writing season.

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