Three things the beach taught me about science

Endless summer. I am quoting from a representative email that I received this summer from a fellow scientist in the EuroEPINOMICS consortium: “XYZ will reply to you once he is back from his holiday – IF he comes back”. A metereological anomaly had given us one of the longest and most intense summers that I can remember. No rain for roughly four weeks, a new temperature record and a heat that was so intense that the tarmac on the highways started to melt. Accordingly, the motivation in EuroEPINOMICS land to leave the beach behind and return to the office was at an all time low. We spent our summer holiday in Marielyst, Denmark and I just wanted to share some thoughts on how the world of science looks when you’re at the beach. Yes, this post is not too serious.

1 – The cold water isn’t all that cold. You feel the fine sand of Denmark’s best beach under your feet and the hot air makes you want to simply jump into the water to cool down, but –ouch- you forgot that the Baltic Sea is not your neighborhood swimming pool and always stays a little cooler than you expected (I can be quite a wimp sometimes). After you finally managed to cool yourself off and jump into the water, you get used to it and eventually start to wonder why this was so difficult in the first place – until the entire cycle begins again on the next day. With respect to science, we are often faced with seemingly insurmountable tasks. Understanding a certain technology or getting a program like denovogear to work, writing a lengthy grant or research report or giving a presentation in front of a skeptical audience. After much trial and error, you understand how to do a de novo analysis and you like it that much that you even let it run on your own laptop, you find joy in the process of writing and you structure your presentation to make it bulletproof with minimalistic, carefully crafted slides and a presentation that you rehearsed thirty times over. Take home message: there will always be cold water and you will always realize again that it’s not a big deal in the end. Just commit yourself to dipping your feet in.

The Marielyst beach. Yes, that's my towel.

The Marielyst beach. Yes, that’s my towel.

2 – Not everybody might appreciate your sandcastles. I don’t like to boast, but I consider myself a sandcastle expert ever since I won a sandcastle contest in Punta Ala, Italy in 1983. In retrospect, I strongly suspect that everybody was a winner in this contest, but man, does this make you feel special. I still consider my wet-sand-dripping technique unsurpassed, which results in sandcastles with a certain gothic flair. I was looking forward to building sandcastles with my 2 ½ year old daughter, expecting that I would see the expression of sheer admiration in her face. But what did she do? Seemingly bored, she turned around after 30 seconds and starting playing with a architecturally less sophisticated puddle of water that kept her busy for the following hour. We are often proud of our accomplishments and expect everybody to feel the same. Be it the method that we have established, the epilepsy family that we have personally worked up or the publication that we have written. Accordingly, we are annoyed or hurt when the manuscript calls for the method to be banished to the Supplementary Appendix, we don’t receive first author status on a paper that reports on our special patients or when our previous papers are not cited. What can be done about this? Realize that being proud of sandcastles has its place and that you might be rewarded with a pink rubber ball (that still meant something in 1983). However, holding on to this pink rubber ball for too long will make you resentful and become a person of the past. Try to look forward, not backwards.

3 – Respect the diversity of the jellyfish.  My wife fell over backwards when I told her that our daughter enjoyed playing with jellyfish – in that puddle that I mentioned earlier. Born and raised in the US, my wife has a healthy respect for jellyfish, which –as I learned- tend to be dangerous in the waters surrounding American beaches. Furthermore, having spent some time in Australia, jellyfish equals box jellyfish. In addition to sharks, this creature is the reason why the beaches at the Northern Territory are usually deserted. In contrast, Baltic sea jellyfish are harmless, slimy creatures that don’t to any harm. I personally wouldn’t want to touch them, but tell this to a 2 ½ old. My wife and I realized that the phrase “jellyfish” carries a culturally different connotation for us – she envisioned a deadly creature while I was thinking about these yucky little animals that are washed on the beach. Cultural differences are a major source of misunderstanding in science, especially when you don’t see them coming, as you believe that your opposite has the same value set and background as you have. This, however, is rarely the case unless you have worked with someone for a very long time. While these differences may go unnoticed in a working collaboration, they usually surface unexpectedly at critical decision points such as a debate about authorship or research priorities during times of crisis and limited funds. The solution for this: be aware that science is as much about talking to fellow scientists as it is about doing the actual work. Find out what they think about jellyfish before the misunderstanding arises.

Ingo Helbig

Child Neurology Fellow and epilepsy genetics researcher at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), USA and Department of Neuropediatrics, Kiel, Germany

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