College of Agriculture & Natural Resources
Plant Science & Landscape Architecture

Ever felt lost in your research problem? Then forget B, jump onto the cloud and work for C!

Dr. Uri Alon is a professor and systems biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel. Apart from his career as a professor and a science researcher, he is featured in a few videos on YouTube such as Sunday at the lab and How to Give a Good Talk. In 2013, he gave a talk at TedGlobal on Why science demands a leap into the unknown. During this talk he sings a song named “Scooped again”, which is the most hilarious research song ever. Dr. Alon, is also the author of the most bookmarked scientific paper on CiteULike in year 2011. His personal experience as a graduate student and currently as a professor inspired him to write the two articles, How to Choose a Good Scientific Problem and How to Build a Motivated Research Group that became very popular within science research community.

In most of his videos he has discussed how scientists have to look at a question in a more creative way than thinking of research as a direct line from question to answer. To elaborate further on his idea, he came up with a more realistic and practical schema that helps students to find possible other ways to address a tough research question, in other words, how to stay positive, happy and healthy while working on a difficult research question. We have all been in this situation at some point in our lives as researchers - where you work too hard but, see no progress in your work, your data do not support your hypotheses, you are depressed, discouraged and frustrated. He describes this phase as the “cloud phase”, further explaining how important it is to be in this stage in order to discover something unknown. As he explains, this phase is where the transition happens between known and unknown. He symbolizes the unknown fact as C and the research question as A and the direct answer to the question as B. B is somewhat essential to find an answer to the question, but C is more profound, thus you don’t have struggle to reach B and being stuck in the cloud give a positive sign that you will soon enter the unknown region and reach “your C”.

Besides what Dr. Alon said, as graduate students we personally know how stressful this kind of situations can be and what external and internal factors we need to consider in order to be successful in our research careers. In that case, we all agreed that it is essential to have a good communication with fellow graduate students and to be social and engaged in departmental, University-wide events. For example, becoming a member of the Graduate Students’ Association, participating in Coffee Pot, Lab parties all help students to maintain good mental health and keep them engaged. In addition to that, maintaining a healthy relationship with one’s mentor and other faculty members is very important. According to Alon, both parties should equally contribute to build up a good relationship. A mentor should have qualities such as being helpful, willingness to guide, understandable and communicative. A mentor’s goal should be to provide students with the conditions that enhance their natural self-motivated behavior and help them to reach the full potential of internal motivation. Similarly, the student as the other party should be negotiable, optimistic, persistent and motivated.

The other most critical factor is building up a positive work environment. The mentor plays a big role in this situation as well. Friendly lab mates, relaxed and productive atmosphere,cooperation, support and empowerment together helps to build a cheerful and good work environment. Moreover, mental illness is often offered as the standard rationale to explain why some graduate students burn out. We believe that graduate departments need to openly acknowledge this problem. As an initiative step, they can encourage students to go on vacations, take breaks, to entertain themselves and provide counselling to students who are in need. Going back to what Dr. Alon mentioned in his video and articles, it is very important to make science more creative, do not be afraid to get stuck in the cloud. And most importantly, enjoy what you are doing!

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