We’ve all seen those movies where scientists suddenly have a “eureka” moment and discover a life-changing breakthrough that alters the course of humanity as we know it. Transcendence, a film about artificial intelligence featuring Johnny Depp, for example, has a scene where a character seemingly figures out how to upload someone’s consciousness into a computer in a matter of days, saving the man’s life. While this sort of spontaneity of research in films moves the plot forward well and contributes to the overall sci-fi feel, I couldn’t help but notice how utterly ridiculous this portrayal of scientific research really is. This summer, I was fortunate enough to work on a research project for six week at UC Santa Barbara under the guidance of a postdoctoral researcher in the Lipshutz Lab. I want to address what I think is the reality of research.
To start, some context on my research. The lab’s work focuses on a novel method of organic synthesis, the process to make most bioactive chemicals such as medicine or pesticides, that eliminates the necessity of organic solvents to reduce the environmental impact of chemical industries. If you reacted to the previous sentence with “ugh, chemistry, boring,” then this is the first point I want to make about research. Most of it is not super interesting, easy to understand, or groundbreaking. Rather, a large part of scientific research is focusing on specific aspects of science to advance their respective fields. Nevertheless, their impacts can certainly be felt by the general public, but just not in the life-changing ways curing cancer would. In addition, the relatively significant discoveries through research are the accumulations of years of work by many people. To develop our method of organic synthesis in water, over ten years worth of publications on optimizing particular reactions and designing specific materials formed the basis for an integration of our method into industry. Hundreds of publications each contributed their own bit into our lab group’s overall impact on the field of chemistry. Thus, I was surprised by how a single scientist was able to figure out such a complex mechanism of uploading consciousness in such a short time in Transcendence.
The second aspect of research that I did not expect was how painfully slow it was. Each day, I left the lab with useful, but meager results. Most of the day I was setting up reactions or preparing samples for analysis. A lot of the necessary steps to ensure my results were accurate were unbelievably time-consuming. On average, it would take over twenty-four hours for me to get the results from a reaction from the time all the reagents were added. Moreover, it was very repetitive. My project was comprised of setting up and measuring 5 different types of reactions over and over again with slight changes to the parameters to find out which one works the best. According to my lab notebook, I had set up almost one hundred reactions, all following the same time-consuming procedures. While this may sound tiring and monotonous, I actually looked forward to going to the lab every day. This is because every day, I inched closer to completing my project by making slow, but steady progress. I was excited to check my reactions from the day before and see what kind of results I would have. If they were good, then I would be ecstatic. If they were futile, I can at least rule out certain parameters and start testing new things. It was this cycle of progress that drove me forward through the hours-long extraction and purification processes.
I was able to experience research this summer that was contrary to what popular media portrays. Research is slow and often not very interesting. But for the type of people who find their passion in slow lab days highlighted by the occasional good result, it is certainly a rewarding occupation. I can’t say that this summer has turned me into a research fanatic, but it has definitely made me a terrible person to watch sci-fi movies with.