Dumb and Dumber


Madeline Burke is a third-year postgraduate researcher in the department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine.  Madeline did her undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering before switching disciplines when she started a PhD with the Bristol Centre for Functional Nanomaterials (BCFN). She is currently building a 3D bio-printer that can create human tissue by printing stem cells. Madeline’s research is interdisciplinary, using concepts from chemistry, cell biology and engineering, to design matrices for stem cells that not only support the cells, but cause them to grow into desired tissue such as cartilage. Most of her time is spent in the lab, designing new experiments and building her 3D printer.

One of the hardest things I’m finding about my PhD is the constant feeling of stupidity overwhelming me at every turn. All the way through school and my undergraduate degree there was a huge importance placed on getting things right; getting the right answer to a question, understanding theory, reciting facts. The set of skills you worked so hard to acquire during school and your undergrad are almost entirely useless when doing a research degree, when something isn’t working you can’t just look the answer up in a text book.

This hit me the hardest recently when I asked the longest-serving postdoc in my group, who to me is the fountain of all knowledge, to help me with a problem I was having. Her answer, that she didn’t know how to solve the problem, astounded me. I asked around the group, no one knew the answer. If this group of highly intelligent people, who had worked in this field for many more years than I had, didn’t know the answer what hope did I have at succeeding? I went home feeling really dejected – why was I putting myself through this when someone who was far more experienced than me didn’t have the answer to one of my smaller research problems. Then I realised, that is the point of a research degree. No one knows the answer, it’s uncharted territory. I am working on a completely new research problem; it’s up to me to find the answer to my own question.

It took me a while, but after I accepted that no one knew the answer it suddenly became a whole lot easier. A couple of days of wading through papers and trying different things yielded a promising result and I realised that I’m not stupid, but that feeling stupid had helped to motivate me to find the answer. Stupidity and ignorance are feelings that most of us will feel throughout our PhDs. Initially I thought this was a bad thing – who wants to feel dumb all the time? But is feeling stupid really a bad thing? Maybe it’s the reason we strive harder to reach the next goal. The person that sums this up the best is Martin A. Schwartz who in 2008 wrote an essay in the Journal of Cell Science about “The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research”.

In his closing paragraph he reasons the importance of being productively stupid;

Productive stupidity means being ignorant by choice. Focusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant. One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. No doubt, this can be difficult for students who are accustomed to getting the answers right. No doubt, reasonable levels of confidence and emotional resilience help, but I think scientific education might do more to ease what is a very big transition: from learning what other people once discovered to making your own discoveries. The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.”

I’m very lucky, having completed an undergraduate degree in engineering I have been schooled in creativity, problem solving and iterative understanding. Engineering takes known and clearly understood facts and applies them to a problem to solve it; this is essentially what we are doing in a scientific research degree. Taking the knowledge we know and using it to explore the unknown research problem. The feelings of stupidity I experienced in my engineering degree – not knowing if the filter I built using denim instead of expensive filter paper would work – I still feel today. In this case my ignorance worked, I discovered a much cheaper filter material, and my design worked. But more often than not the experiments you design don’t work, and the feeling of ignorance and stupidity persists. But hard as it is, I am trying to embrace that feeling. I don’t know the answers to all my questions, and maybe never will, but I’m definitely going try and find out.