One of the many challenges of starting a career in research is finding a successful path early on. There’s no use putting the entire course of your life on track to be the worlds greatest Phrenologist or VCR repair man, you want to pick a field that’s going to be around in 5 years. Or better yet, choose a field that wont even exist for five years, and be one of the first to make the big discoveries. So in many ways there’s a degree of prognostication in being a great researcher. This is my first year of my PhD, so right now I’m hard at work staring into my crystal ball (awesome gypsy head scarf and all), and trying to cipher out what the research world will look like in ten years, and how I can be ahead of the pack.
Putting the actual science aside, a lot of the opportunities I see are a question of focus that seem to fall into two categories; basic science research, or translational research. Obviously when it comes to the actual science these aren’t clear cut, and certainly not mutually exclusive, but I think the focus is clearly different. For a long time I worked in a basic science lab, teasing apart gene functions and analyzing mutations that had no human disease counterpart, starting from the ground up to build our understanding of a system that may or may not be important in treating humans. Here it was more about finding an interesting question, searching for an answer, discovering more questions along the way, and answering those. Like a puzzle, or a murder mystery, which suited me just fine.
When I started school at OHSU, I wanted to see the other side of research as I saw it. OHSU is after all a medical school, so it made sense to look at research focusing on disease. So far I’ve really enjoyed the more clear cut questions, the messier challenges, and the sense that what I’m doing could directly benefit someone in the near future (which is why I got into research in the first place). It also got me thinking about which approach has the better future in our current economic climate. At the same time as we’ve faced a huge funding crisis in research, we’ve seen a lot of private money coming in to cancer research, and just recently President Obama signed into creation the NIH Translational Center. So there seems to be a shift towards applied science as far as funding is concerned.
Here at OHSU we have the OCTRI that offers the OSLER Program for graduate students, which seems like a great way to support projects in applied science, and to get training in clinical trials. If this focus bears fruit we can probably expect more opportunities and training grants like this in the future.
For my part I’m tentatively excited about this direction, and I’m looking forward to taking advantage of some of these funding opportunities. My only hope is that the drop off in funding for basic science doesn’t last, because that would certainly hurt the whole field in the long run. But I’ll leave my extensive rants about crappy funding for nights at the pub.