Thursday, April 17, 2008

My Mind is Rambling

As part of my Ph.D. program, first year students perform laboratory rotations. A mixture of an awkward academic research courtship and broad research training, rotations let students sample different labs and areas of research before settling on a thesis lab.

The opportunity for rotations was a significant part of why I picked this program. Most other schools seemed so focused on getting you in and out of the program quickly -- basically, becoming Ph.D. mills -- rather than letting you 1) explore different approaches to similar questions or topics, and 2) actually make an informed decision about where to complete your thesis. I'd rather take a year or so to pick a lab than dive into a project and research group right away, only to realize a few years later that I'm not so happy. Or worse, that I'm not being academically challenged or motivated anymore.

Rotations also appeal to my general indecisiveness and preference for putting off big choices. But having entered my third -- and presumably final -- rotation this semester, I'm quickly approaching Decision Time. I am, of course, still debating.

I had hoped that some obvious choice would pop out. A logical fit both personally and intellectually. But which lab I see as the better option right now depends on the day (or even time of day) you ask.

The reason my choice has become so difficult is that it represents more than just which lab I want to work in--it's a fundamental choice about what direction I want my research to take, it's a debate of applied research vs. more fundamental science. And this question is where I get confused.

I am, without a doubt, fascinated by systems neuroscience and motor control. There is no issue of what I want to study. The debate is in how I want to approach the problem. My three rotation labs all take very different approaches to motor control. One is focused on brain-machine interfaces. Asking 1) how the brain controls our movements and 2) how can we use the brain to control external devices (e.g. a prosthetic). The other two use very different techniques (one focusing on imaging, the other on modeling of neural computation and psychophysics research), but they ultimately ask very basic questions about motor control and the role of the senses in said movements. The work might eventually have applications towards rehabilitation, or even brain-machine interfaces. But, as with most fundamental research, the applications are vague ideas or afterthoughts. They aren't a driving force behind the work.

My interest in motor control was prompted, almost entirely, via its applications. I have a lot of personal motivations for wanting to improve the lives people with movement disorders. Rehabilitation is also an area of medicine that often gets overlooked. It's not as "sexy" and trendy as, say, gene therapy or cancer research. But it is undoubtedly just as important. Until we magically eliminate the occurrence of stroke or Parkinson's etc., we need to focus on improving the lives of patients with these chronic--and debilitating--disorders.

But, I seem to be suffering from A Conflict of Head and Heart. I have all of these great intentions in mind. But faced with very applied projects, I get almost bored. The brain-machine interfaces work is intellectually exciting in theory, but in practice, the work gets bogged down in details and limitations. The requirement of real-world applicability ultimately reigns in your ideas and reduces the experimenter's creative range. All research faces limitations, I suppose. Your ideas and theories always outnumber the things you can actually implement. But this problem seems to be even more prominent for application-oriented projects.

I've come to accept the fact that I'll never be an Engineer in the traditional sense of the word. I'd rather ask big questions than make a specific product. But can the underlying goals of brain-machine interfaces work ultimately outweigh my ADD intellectual side? Do I pick a project that's personally motivating and maybe less intellectually exciting, risking getting bored and frustrated? Or do I instead select a project that appeals to my inquisitive nature but lacks in passion?

Of course, things aren't quite as cut-and-dry as I've portrayed them. There are basic science questions mixed in with the brain-machine interfaces work. And some applications and ideas may indeed come out of the more basic work in either of the other two labs. But it's a question of weighting. Which is more important to me, I'm still not sure. It's also a question of my ultimate career path and goals.

There's also the unique appeal of the high-impact, cutting edge aspect of brain-machine interfaces. Almost anything you do in this field will be new. You'll be the first. You'll get papers in Nature or Science. It's a very enticing idea for a fresh-faced scientist, indeed. It'd also be an amazing way to launch a career.

There are other, more personal, issues at play to complicate matters too. There's a debate of Berkeley vs. San Francisco -- my preference probably being for the latter. Whether or not I want to do animal research. The personal atmospheres of the different labs. So on and so forth.

Options are always great. I should be happy to have so many great projects to chose from. But right now, the task of closing off some of these options and making a choice is, well, daunting.



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