When you become the subject: how to deal with knowing too much
This reflective piece could give you an additional 5% on your Assignment 2 mark. 5% is not a lot in the grand scheme of things, and yet I found myself ruffling my feathers, so to speak, scrambling for a topic to write about – seeing my classmates have already spread their wings, covering topics such as changing workloads, academic burnout, and the sheer excitement of taking part in studies that feel like they could be from science-fiction movies. Then I realized that I have a different experience that may not be unique but is certainly not commonly discussed: how to deal with knowing too much.
The science field is often seen as a cold an impersonal one, and sometimes it forgets that there are real people behind the sample ID numbers, however, the merit is that we can look at data more objectively as we are not personally affected by the outcome. Whether the experiment fails, or if it turns out to be a flying success, it makes no greater personal difference than moving on or trying again. But now I ask you, what happens when you start seeing yourself, or someone you know in those little numbers?
No one prepares you for the day when you have to present a figure from a clinical trial paper for a cancer treatment, when a family member has just passed away from the exact cancer a new developmental drug is being tested for, or the sadness that comes when you start thinking about all the people who could have lived had this been discovered just a few months earlier. Words fail me when I try to describe what it feels when you’re discussing the merits of a scientific paper with your peers, where one treatment is clearly more effective than another, and the consequent tailspin you get stuck in when you start to doubt your doctor’s decisions regarding your course of treatment – the power that critical thinking holds is a mighty one, and essentially that is what this year is about.
Your honours year is designed to test you and mould you into the future of the scientific world. We are taught how to read critically, how to design experiments and present papers. We are taught how to pipette properly, how to draw graphs and engage with communities – how to translate our research in a way that will allow someone outside our field to understand – and yet we are not taught how to cope with the personal consequences of our research.
For those of you who have resonated with the article and read to the end hoping to see what advice I have, you are not alone. I have more questions than answers, but what I’ve gathered so far is that we should strive to be more like the old Greek figure, Daedalus, who crafted wings of feathers and wax to escape imprisonment. The modern-day equivalent would be to lean into your personal connection to a specific area and let your emotions serve as a source of motivation to honour the field by staying objective, since biased research won’t help anyone in the grand scheme of things. However, and there is a very fine line between passion and obsession and we should try our best not to let our emotions lead us too far astray or we run the risk of following Icarus, who flew too close to the sun.