Martin: 'The template was not there'

At the time of my interview, Martin is halfway through a three-year PhD program. He earned his master’s and bachelor’s degree abroad, in his native country. There, he met Johan a couple of years ago when the latter was giving a presentation at Martin’s former university. As Martin recalls it, he went up to Johan after his talk, they chatted and stayed in contact. First, Martin came for a week’s visit to the lab, then for a whole summer and finally he was hired as a doctoral student. From early on, Martin showed interest in a high risk project, the structural determination of an “orphan” protein, an oddly shaped one at the periphery of the family of proteins that Johan’s lab is studying. Comparably less is known about such proteins, and to determine their molecular composition requires a sequence of experimental steps, each of which is fraught with experimental insecurities.

In fact, Johan gave the project to him—but not to him alone, as Martin learned later. When he started his PhD, he found to his surprise that a newly arrived post-doc, Nanna, would be working on the same research task. As Martin and Nanna pursue the same goal, they are closely collaborating. In the beginning, they had to find out how to organize themselves in order to avoid “inefficiencies” and “not to double [...] work” unnecessarily. This has been complicated by the fact that Martin is supposed to work on his dissertation. In his view, Nanna’s understanding of what it means to write a dissertation is different from the understanding that Martin developed through the time he has spent in Johan’s group. According to Martin, Nanna, having graduated at a research laboratory in another country, regards a dissertation rather as a collection of experiments in which a student is supervised, but essentially works alone:

[.] she cares a lot about my PhD which is extremely nice and she is always kind of telling me that this is, “put this in your thesis” and so forth. In her mind, when she started, was the thing that in your PhD thesis should be only and exclusively your results. But what I experience here is that if you collaborate, of course you state who, that it’s someone else’s, but you can make a, make a coherent story with results from other people. And for a while that was unclear, that was trying to do something, everything that I did should have a coherent kind of storyline. And it was difficult kind of not to double, then, work. So, [...] we had some inefficiencies, and yeah, we had to figure out kind of on the job. There was not really, the template was not really there.

After some time, however, Martin and Nanna were able to agree upon a modus operandi, a routine of synchronized, parallel experimentation that has proven to be most “efficient.” As Martin explains, he and Nanna

“[...] do simultaneous things and then if any of us have success, start from there and then split again." In this manner, they explore experimental alternatives at each of the steps that it takes to purify a protein for crystallization. If one of them has obtained good results with a particular badge—e.g. a particular chemical dilution—at a particular experimental step, they share the successful badge between themselves and, again, take it from there and purse parallel experimental tracks. Their shared goal is to determine the structure of their orphan protein as quickly as possible—as Martin emphasizes, “you want to publish, you want to get to the end." For the amount of time that Martin has at his disposal, this is an ambitious goal, and he relies not only on close collaboration with Nanna, but also on intense supervision and substantial help:

In the Danish system [...] you have only three years of PhD. I don’t think you have time for actual whole projects, stumbling on every step, doing all the steps and having problems at all these steps to learn the techniques — and be able to publish. [.] So, [.] generally speaking, you never know all the techniques. So, whatever you do, you learn some techniques.

Therefore, Martin adds, “you want to be in an environment where there is a lot of techniques available, so whenever you have a particular problem, you can ask people to kind of supervise you." Because the group is large, Johan is not “[...] supervising us in a standard way," and Martin relies to a large degree on Magnus, an advanced post-doc who is leading a subgroup on orphan proteins and whose experience in the isolation of these proteins is crucial for the work of both Martin and Nanna.

Many experimental steps require pragmatic decisions—e.g., about the concentration of dilutions—for which no detailed explicit guidelines exist, therefore particularly younger scientists rely upon lab members with more experimental experience:

The question always is why do we use 50 molar, 100 molar, like you don’t know if 78 would be better. You just don’t have the time to test every small detail. You have to go with, just things that work and just copy that. And then, on top of that, you put what you understand is happening, what you know generally about science.

In dealing with epistemic uncertainties such as these, “luck" and instances in which a colleague “stumble[s] semi-accidentally" over a result can be components of experimental success; but just as important are the sheer labor force, mutual help and a well-functioning laboratory: “it’s very difficult to compete as a new person, but if you are here [in the laboratory] you can actually, if you are lucky, you can go straightforward with the routine techniques that we have here and actually get an excellent publication. It’s possible."

Let me conclude this chapter by pointing out that, for the two research groups I have studied and whose members I have interviewed, collaboration is the sine qua non of experimental scientific practice. As I hope to have illustrated with the interviews presented in this and the preceding chapter, by and large research group members perceive collaboration, and the relations of inter-individual dependence that it entails, neither as a threat to their intrinsic individual motivation nor to their professional autonomy as an established or aspiring expert in a given field. Rather, collaboration is a means of consolidating, developing and enacting expertise and pursuing individual interests. As this chapter makes clear, however, there is a basic difference in the pursuit of individual research interests between the planetary science group and the molecular biology laboratory. While members of the former seek to establish themselves as relative experts with distinct fields of expertise, members of the latter seek to learn from one another, incorporating in detail the experimental experiences that other group members have made. Only in this way can they pursue their individual research interests.

 
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