• Question: How do you as scientists find big questions to solve and experiment, do you get asked a question or do you find questions ?

    Asked by Jin O on 1 Jun 2020.
    • Photo: Kim Liu

      Kim Liu answered on 1 Jun 2020: last edited 1 Jun 2020 10:58 am


      Great question ๐Ÿ™‚ At the start of a scientific career, questions that we ask come from ourselves but are heavily influenced by the group/institute of scientists we work amongst. When you apply to become an academic scientist in this field, you would pick a group to join that researches a theme. By applying to this group, you effectively pick the type and content of the questions you want to ask. In general, the younger you are (e.g. university students) the more you are told what questions to ask, and how to ask them. A good PhD supervisor will enable a student to pick something they like the sound of, whilst providing good guidance about how realistic the project would be within their group.

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      In principle, as we mature as scientists, our own interests start to shape the questions we ask. A postdoc may have favourite techniques or topics they want to explore further, and therefore apply to a group which allows them ask these questions, with influences from their group leader.

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      The process of becoming a group leader, as far as I see it, is to find fully formed questions that you wish to solve, and you feel confident enough that these are good enough questions and you are experienced enough such that you can solve them yourself. Nonetheless – I’m certain that the questions asked are influenced by the academic environment you are in and perhaps the desires of funding bodies which provide the money required to do research.

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      Overall – I would say picking the right questions is the greatest scientific challenge most scientists face (outside human reasons of finding funding, employment, relationships etc.). One needs to balance personal interest, realistic expectations, usefulness, originality and others. On top of that, there are all the non scientific issues that come with being human beings, which can make picking the right question even harder than it needs to be ~~ Having said all this, it is extraordinarily fun ^_^

    • Photo: Leanne Bradley

      Leanne Bradley answered on 1 Jun 2020:


      Hi Jin, this is a great question!

      Kim Liu has already given a great and super comprehensive answer!

      One thing that I would add, is that sometimes when you present your research (at a conference or even after you have published it in a scientific journal) people will ask you questions or point out things that you maybe didn’t even consider and this can really influence your research too!
      Because there are so many new findings being published every day it’s really difficult to know every single aspect of your field or those closely related to it. So discussing your results and plans with other scientists (or also very important with medical research, patient groups), you can be made aware of things you had never considered!

    • Photo: Bilal Ahsan

      Bilal Ahsan answered on 1 Jun 2020:


      “There are no small problems. Problems that appear small are large problems that are not understood”. Santiago Ramon y Cajal
      I would say necessity drives us asking the right question, which is also fundamental to scientific progress. What follows next is ‘there is always a solution’. To this end, experiments are rationally designed and meticulously executed.
      Depending on scientific maturity, one might be designing and executing the experiments – such as a PhD student and a Post Doctorate fellow – asking the questions. Others, such as Principal Investigators, and Scientific Directors usually ask questions and set the ground to ask questions, respectively.

    • Photo: Melanie Krause

      Melanie Krause answered on 1 Jun 2020:


      Great question! ๐Ÿ™‚
      There are two great answers already but I would like to add the money aspect to what was already said:

      To a large part what we study is determined by what we can get money for because research is of course quite expensive… so scientists apply for research grants and propose to study a scientific question they think is interesting or important. Then a committee will review the research plan and see if they like the topic and if the proposal is realistic and if the experiments make sense. Only then do you get the money to study what you want to study.
      I work in infectious diseases research and before Covid-19 viruses were often neglected as a problem in other countries and on the african or south american continent. That is why for a long time there was not enough money to study Ebola virus even though we know about it for 40 years before the big outbreak in 2015. After that governments provided more money to study the virus.
      I hope that after this pandemic governments will choose to better fund research into viruses and other pathogens so we will know more about them and can protect us better when there is another outbreak! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Photo: Ailith Ewing

      Ailith Ewing answered on 1 Jun 2020:


      Hi Lin, as you know the aim of a scientist is to ask great questions to learn more about what we don’t know. I would say that every scientist comes up with their own questions. But there are different types of question. Scientists at different stages of their career may ask different questions for example, an institute director may ask how can we discover how changes in our DNA impact our lives, a group leader may be interested in that question but be more specifically interested in how changes in our DNA contribute to rare disease and want to get more diagnoses for more patients, a researcher in their group may be interested in a particular rare disease so come up with questions related to that disease specifically but their group leader may also have suggestions for interesting questions. The more independent a scientist is the more they come with their own questions but everyone is always influenced by the people round about them. Earlier stage researchers should have their own questions but they may have less of any idea about how they make up a broader research topic.

    • Photo: Nina Rzechorzek

      Nina Rzechorzek answered on 2 Jun 2020:


      Congratulations Jin on asking perhaps the most important question of all! This does depend on your background and training to some extent. For me, working with patients has helped to realise the gaps in our understanding that are holding back medical discovery – this is particularly the case for how the brain works. If we don’t understand how something works, how can we hope to fix it when it goes wrong? So, many of the questions I hope to answer during my career will be driven by patient needs and a desire to advance neurology and neuroscience – these are also the questions that I am most passionate about because they will enable me to make a lasting impact/contribution to medical science. Engaging with different groups of people can also help shape (refine) our questions to make them better or more meaningful in the real world – chatting to patients, carers, other scientists, industry, governments, and school pupils constantly feeds into the work that we do. As we are mainly funded by the taxpayer, it is critical that our research is ultimately relevant to the public and addresses questions or problems that are important to them (even if it’s not immediately obvious how insightful it might be – but it’s our job to explain how and why our research is important).

    • Photo: Gabriela da Silva Xavier

      Gabriela da Silva Xavier answered on 3 Jun 2020:


      It is a bit of both. Personally, I was very influenced by my own experiences at the start- my research is on diabetes and I got into it because many of my family members are affected by it so I had a general idea of the kind of questions that I might want to work on. When I started doing research on this subject I was made aware of the big issues surrounding the hunt for a cure through reading other people’s work and discussing with my colleagues, and that informed the direction of my work. When I delved in to the research a bit more and started to generate my own data, I identified further questions of my own. It is quite an organic process because data keeps coming out from different laboratories and the information guides us in terms of what we should be looking at next.

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