What the beach told me about science in 2022

Rehoboth. In 2013, I started a small segment on our blog that reflected on the summer and my time at the beach, weaving in small anecdotes that happened during my summer vacation. This was nine years ago and I have to admit that I didn’t keep up this annual tradition as well as I could have and I would like to start it up again. Here are my 2022 thoughts about the beach and science and what we learn about biomedical research during the times when we are not actually involved in it. While putting this post together, I realized that this year’s theme is about limitations. So how does a beach vacation relate to limitations and how does this all fit together? Please bear with me.

Figure 1. Sunrise in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. When taking this photo, I realized that I had not seen a sunrise over the ocean for the last 15 years. Sunrises are strange moments and the almost magical atmosphere of the early sunrise quickly evaporates and gives way to the glaring sun that heats up everything around you quickly and hurts your eyes. In parallel to our scientific endeavors, a sunrise is about changing perspective. There are a few things you only appreciate when the brightest object is just a red disk at the horizon.

Barefoot bike rides. Ok, I’m revealing one of my hidden passions here: I like to go on long bike rides in the summer evenings and take my shoes off, pedaling barefoot. Admittedly, it’s a sensory thing and I like feeling the ground (or pedal) underneath my bare feet. I even managed to do an entire mountain trail with bare feet when I was younger. I have learned over the last few years that this is my hobby and my hobby alone. This summer, I dropped all the pretense of asking people to join me as I enjoy the time alone when cruising through the dunes, marshes, and fields of lower Delaware. But where am I going with this? In science, maintaining an independent direction is often much more difficult than it seems. There are all these hero stories about passionate scientists pursuing their goals. However, in reality, there is always the push back to the mean, to the conventional standard science. For example, in neurogenetics, gene discoveries, case series and traditional phenotyping studies will always be more tempting than working on algorithms for Electronic Medical Records (EMR) or Human Phenotype Ontologies (HPO). In some cases, we even try to downplay the underlying methodologies to make a publication more palatable. My team frequently hears me go on about standard science, non-conformity with the status quo, and Kuhnian paradigm changes. It is important to remember that deep down, we don’t need external validation for what we are doing.

Biological limits. I hit my biological limitations this summer at Rehoboth Beach’s Funland. For the first time in my life, I went on the Superflip 360, an amusement park ride where you are sitting in a rotating disk that is simultaneously flipped over and over again. I can tolerate a lot, but the Superflip really did me in. I had to lie down afterwards and needed the air-conditioned refuge of our rental summer home to recover. I had clearly reached my biological limits. During my doctoral thesis, my supervisor told me that working in science is working within limitations. At the time, I didn’t really know what to make of this statement, but I slowly start to understand. We are limited by the methods we choose. In some cases, this shapes our perspective and almost limits our world views. For example, when I worked on gap junctions and electrical synapses, these structured appeared to be too important to not be involved in human disease. How could they not? However, as of 2022, there is no proof that they are. In fact, there is only a single individual with a de novo variant in the gene for the most important neuronal gap junction protein in the 2020 Kaplanis paper.

 A changing environment. Ever since my first beach blog post in 2013, things have changed. I am wearing sun hats, 70+ sunscreen, and a UV-proof swim shirt. In addition, the summers have gotten so hot that the time at the beach is naturally limited and we need to cool down. Admittedly, these are negligible concession compared to the impact that climate change has on a growing proportion of the world population. In biomedical science, we typically consider ourselves unaffected by these issues, our research endeavors are typically not impaired by the changing climate around us. But can we say this in all certainty for the future? For example, in 2021 Hurricane Ida led to a flooding of the research building where our lab is housed. In addition, I am asking myself what a more climate-friendly research world will look like. With the renewed emphasis on office work and in-person scientific meetings requiring flights, it feels like we might have missed a chance to make research more ecologically sustainable. Again, mixing our scientific thoughts with concerns regarding climate change feels odd. However, I am certain that these discussions on beneficial limitations may become much more relevant in the future.

Ingo Helbig is a child neurologist and epilepsy genetics researcher working at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), USA.