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The Black Hole

Doctors of Philosophy? I fear not…


Quick Hit:

I now write for the Stem Cell Network’s blog and have published two entries for them. The first is on stem cell resources and organizations in the UK, and the second is of broader interest regarding a New Scientist article that did a network analysis of peer reviewed publication with some rather severe implications surrounding the process.

I haven’t done research at a University since 2003.
While my CV suggests that I obtained a doctorate at UBC and I am currently at Cambridge University for post doctoral training, I have lived and worked at least 30 minutes from the central university campus for almost my entire research career. I am a product of “hospital” or “institute” based research operations – where millions get spent on scientific research. No large university in Canada is without them these days – the BC Cancer Agency, Sick Kids Hospital, and the Institut de recherches cliniques de Montréal are some examples that spring to mind.

The reasons for such an approach by universities are plentiful:

Access to Clinical Samples

    • – medical doctors who see patients are next door and sometimes affiliated directly with particular research labs.

Interactions with Doctors

    • – scientists meet medics and medics meet scientists… this allows an understanding and appreciation for the various stresses and operations of each career while also building strong collegial relationships.

Concentration of Resources

    • – Medical research often requires expensive machines and resources. Sometimes these even get organized into core facilities that many labs can take advantage of which would not be possible without close proximity to one another.


    • All campuses have a limited amount of

physical space

    to house research laboratories. Moving or creating certain theme based centres (Cancer, Engineering, etc) can definitely free up valuable real estate on the main campus.

It seems like such a simple no-brainer – put all the biomedical people together and they will do great things.

However, in this blog entry I will contend that while this silo based approach is effective at producing lots of data, it is having severe and lasting negative consequences on the well rounded training of scientists and we need to adapt training programs to deal with this sooner rather than later.

Location, Location, Location
The BC Cancer Agency in Vancouver is located at least 30 minutes by transit/bicycle to UBC. This means that any UBC campus service that is provided (counseling, recreation facilities, professional development workshops, university wide lectures, etc) cost the campus based trainee 5-10 minutes in travel and the off-campus trainee 1.0-1.5 hours. When coupled with the length of the event, this often results in a huge chunk of the day and typically results in most off campus students declining participation.

Workers, not Students
It was never more clear to me than the day I told my friend Graeme that I couldn’t stay out too late because I had to go into “work” early the following morning. He asked “but aren’t you a student?” and I replied “well yes, but…” and then trailed off realizing that most on campus students would have said “I have to go into the lab” or simply “start early”. It really is like a workplace routine – you go into a physical workplace every day, wouldn’t dream of staying home to read or research with giving prior notification, and you often have standard vacation days and reasonable compensation. This is a far cry from the English Literature doctoral student who is often isolated, completely flexible with their timetable, and critically under-compensated. The on campus lab based student finds themselves somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.

Too specialized?
I can imagine that many senior professors simply cannot relate to the degree of specialization that today’s trainees are forced to undertake in order to be at the cutting edge of their field. We do not get general science or even general biology degrees anymore, many do not know the names Karl Popper or Thomas Kuhn, and the divide between geneticists and biochemists is even widening to the point of not understanding each other. It is extremely frustrating to witness the complete lack of trainee enthusiasm to attend lectures and events that aren’t directly relevant to their exact field of research – I believe this is a product of their training and the increasing pressure to produce data and publications as opposed to being trained to think up the next big advances.

Pressure from Above
Professors at these institutes are not inculpable, though it can be argued that the tenure track pressures that they feel may lead them to cut corners in training as it is difficult to assign a metric to outside of “numbers of trainees” so is deemed less valuable. PhDs are often given cookie cutter projects pre-designed and pre-assessed for likely success.

Silo Mentality
The off campus situation reinforces the silo mentality and further fractionates scientists and this is beginning to bite us already. A great example is the increasing amount of engineering technology that is utilized in medical research – how many hospitals have on staff chemical or materials engineering professors? The systems biology approaches that are emerging from the reductionist single protein/molecule days of the 1980s and 90s risk being under-developed because the inter-disciplinary teams that need to be formed are often found outside of comfortable “informal coffee/chat” distance.

Possible solutions
Now that Canada has built many of these research complexes, I can hardly suggest razing them in an effort to let graduate students get one or two professional development sessions a year or to meet engineers over tea. What I think is necessary, however, is something that some groups have worked toward and all groups should work toward – building capacity at these research institutes to host such events and to facilitate broader thinking in their current programming. Engaging with university partners to enable off campus trainees to have some level of access to things like counseling, recreation, lectures, etc will greatly enhance the university experience and encourage more blue sky research.

As an example, I know that GrasPods (the trainee group at the CRC) has levied funds from the UBC Graduate Student Society to run off campus professional development workshops and networking events. This is exactly the type of thing that off campus research institutes need to create and support in an effort to compensate for the lack of a physical university campus.

Importantly, there needs to be space and time given to exposing graduate students and post docs (and professors!) to new lines of thinking outside of their field. Are we satisfied with training a cohort of lab monkeys that know how to sequence genomes and run PCRs without having the slightest idea (or desire) to engage or understand the social and economic implications of their research? I for one am not, and urge off campus research institutes and hospitals to assess and improve the quality of training that they are giving the next generation of scientists.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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