Saturday, December 28, 2013

Which Sub-Field of Biology Is The Best? (Does It Really Matter?)

Whenever you hear a question in the form of which so-and-so of so-and-so is the best, be prepared to see that the question may be misguided (sometimes it isn't). There is room for debating whether one Olympic sport, such as track & field, is better or harder than another sport, such as swimming -- Carl Lewis or Michael Phelps? These questions can be fun and very informative. I think they are best understood in the context of companion questions, such as "How do we define best?" and "What is the big picture purpose of this 'best'?" Allow me to illustrate.

The field of biology includes many sub-fields. Broadly defined, biology is the study of life or of stuff that interacts with living things. It ranges from sub-fields that study very small things, such as biochemistry and biophysics, to very large things such as psychology and ecology. There is an unspoken pecking order within the fields of biology, likely due to the amount of abstract thinking that is required in that field. Why is it unspoken? Because people usually don't claim such things to be absolutely true, but I have heard many scientists talk about this "pecking order" based on their experience as professionals. At the top of the biology totem pole is biochemistry, and at the bottom would be something like psychology, which some call a "soft science." The irony is that many of the biochemists are so stressed that they need to see psychologists and psychiatrists just to be functional people. Then there is the field of public health. If the goal of biology -- or medical science, to be exact -- is to save lives, then public health researchers have probably saved more lives than all the sub-fields of biology put together. "Who ya gonna call after a disastrous typhoon? Ghost Busters?"

Take-away point #1. If you're deciding which field of biology to study, don't bother yourself too much with which one is the best. Find the one that interests you, that you enjoy, and that you can be good at with some effort. Leave the bickering and posturing for jokes among friends. 

Take-away point #2. Becoming an effective leader -- in business, science, whatever -- requires the ability to respect everyone on the team or in the company. People who do this well are those who get promoted -- I know, because I vote for those type of people. Being ruthless and selfish will get you to the top faster, but being generous and respectful is what keeps you there (or at least helps you sleep better and decreases your risk of unhealthy addictions). I've worked in retail companies, IT companies, educational companies, university laboratories, and national laboratories. I see this again and again... But here are some other interesting questions. Where is this top? And what is success?

Category: Lessons From Science


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