What’s challenging, novel, and valuable about your work?

I’m about to enter my 4th year at the MIT Biological Engineering department. Just in April, my thesis committee (Profs. Jon Runstadler (advisor), Mark Bathe (chair), and JP Onnela (member)) gave me a pass on my examination, and I’m very much thankful for that. Having passed that and having finished up 3rd year, I felt it to be about the right time to put some thoughts down on this journey so far.

My biggest take-homes so far have been a reflection on two questions:

  1. What’s challenging, novel, and valuable about my work?
  2. How does vision about one’s project develop during graduate school?

In this post, I will analyze the three core aspects of the first question.  In a follow-up post, I will outline what I think has been happening in my graduate school career with respect to having a “vision” for a career.

I believe that the core “job function” of a PhD student is to work with his/her advisor to identify a tough, untackled, and important aspect to a problem within their field of study – and then make progress towards solving it. This is in line with the purpose of research-intensive universities, which are places to advance the collective knowledge of humanity, for the benefit of mankind. The nature of “impact” being long-term means that I can expect to have little recognition for any impact in the short-term. Therefore, the correct questions to ask about my work are:

  1. Is it challenging?
  2. Is it novel?
  3. Is it valuable?

“What’s challenging about your work?”

It was about two years ago, that I was sitting next to Prof. Jing Kong at dinner at church. Two years ago, I was not doing what I am doing right now. I was at the bench, trying to make synthetic biology work. Unfortunately, I ended up experiencing my biggest taste of failure career-wise after going through a roughly year-and-a-half long struggle being lost. I was in the middle of those struggles when we chatted. She asked me, “What is your research topic right now?”

I replied duly, and described what I was doing. Then she asked me, “What is difficult about the thing you are doing?”

I went blank.

Like, really blank.

With that one question, I realized where everything was going wrong with the way I was thinking. In my time at my old lab, I was hesitant to take risks, to try challenging and difficult (and potentially tedious) bench-side things. I was more interested in the minutiae problems of laboratory efficiency than I was in expanding a growing field. On reflection, I recognize that as the core reason why I had failed – I failed to adapt the way I was thinking, and hence the way I was acting.

Prof. Kong’s one question reminded me that whatever I’m doing has to be difficult to accomplish, otherwise it’s not fit for the length of time that a doctoral student has to spend on it. Upon further thinking, that makes perfect sense – if what I’m doing can be done easily outside of the university, why bother waste my time, my colleagues’ time, and my advisor’s time working on this?

“What’s novel about your work?”

I have my colleague, Islam Hussein, and my advisor, Jon, to thank for reminding me about this. Islam is one of the most humble, encouraging, and smart scientists that I have had the privilege to work with. Jon is one of the most positive and encouraging mentors that I have encountered. Both of them constantly keep me reminded that what I do has to be novel in order for it to be deliverable in the academic world. (I am ambivalent on whether to stay in it. My biggest career concern is with the last question – value – and not on a specific job.)

For example, on a recent project that I have been playing with in code, I developed a preliminary version of what I think is a simple way to evaluate the match of the influenza vaccine to the predominant influenza strains in circulation. As I was happily pitching this to Islam, he began to ask some very incisive probing questions, while also checking how deeply I had referenced the literature along the way. He reminded me to make sure that what I am thinking of is novel, because in his instinct, there may have been something already published on a similar topic. Indeed, he was right – which means that I have to raise the bar on the novelty aspect. Otherwise, I would not be able to deliver it as a packaged idea/method for publication.

“What’s valuable about your work?”

This question is one I ask myself often. I believe that this is a reflection of the environment that MIT is – an industrially-connected research university which also spins out a ton of start-up companies that are trying to tackle challenging, novel, and valuable questions.

For me, value is not merely measured in money. important as it is. To me, value is multi-faceted. At times, it is quantifying what previously could only be considered qualitative. At other times, it means thinking in terms of improving global health. And at other times, it goes right to the core of “can what I do help us win more grant money?”

I believe that myself knowing the “value” that my work delivers can bring me a deeper sense of satisfaction and joy in my workplaces. Knowing that my work is valuable to other people out there, and will be valued accordingly, is a great motivator as well. I dare not say much about whether delivering value and being valued for it motivates other people, but if the books and blogs I have been reading are any indicator, this is likely a common thing, if not universal.

Indeed, the academic world is one of the few places where smart people can tackle challenging questions with novel approaches, delivering valuable products and/or knowledge of the world we live in along the way. (I would say that in the absence of a VC funding bubble, the start-up world is probably also a great environment for this.)

Throughout the time that I have been a part of the Runstadler lab, I have applied these questions consistently to everything I do. My goal is to train my mind to instinctively think in terms of those three aspects – challenge, novelty, and value. By filtering every single thing I do through those lenses, I hope to be able to train that mental muscle to get stronger.