Scientific research is a series of infinite mysteries
Like detectives collecting evidence to solve a case, scientists perform experiments to unravel the mysteries of life.
If there is one thing I can never resist, it’s a mystery. At the height of the pandemic, I found myself scrolling through my local library’s ebook collection in search of something easy and engaging to take my mind off the state of the world. As I thumbed past the latest bestsellers and celebrity memoirs, I landed on an old favorite: The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie.
Hercule Poirot, Christie’s mustachioed fictional sleuth, would have made an excellent scientist. Rather than rush to a hasty conclusion like his friend Hastings always insisted he do, Poirot waited until he had all the evidence to come to a conclusion on a case. He observed his surroundings, the seemingly innocuous actions of potential suspects, and their answers to every question. Just like a scientist, Poirot knew that how he asked a question was often just as important as the question itself. Occasionally, Poirot even set up his own experiments to gauge the reactions of his suspects, and in the process, he revealed the guilty party.
Like detective stories, science is all about investigations and mystery. Pick up any scientific paper, and verbs that would just as easily find themselves in detective novels spring off the page: We interrogated the possibility… We investigated the theory… We suspect that further research will reveal…. But instead of finding out “whodunit,” scientists uncover the mysteries of life itself.
Unlike novels, science doesn’t end when one mystery gets solved. Every single scientific discovery leads to more questions. For example, what started as an investigation into how bacteria protect themselves from infection led to the discovery of the CRISPR-Cas9 system. Further questioning into CRISPR-Cas9’s potential revealed ways to make it safer for use in humans and has now led to new treatments for human diseases.
This constant cycle of collecting evidence, solving a mystery, and opening another one is one of the reasons why I love science so much. The mystery continues. The book doesn’t end. One of the most frustrating parts about writing my dissertation was realizing how many more questions than answers my research left on the table. I wanted to graduate, but at the same time, I wanted to know more.
While I may no longer be at the bench asking questions, I still get to experience the joy of a good scientific mystery. In my conversations with scientists, I learn about the techniques they invent to answer questions no one has asked before and how they design experiments to chip away at the truth. I hear the thrill in their voices when they describe how they worked through a series of difficult experiments to finally reach a new conclusion. One of my favorite questions to ask scientists as an interview wraps up is what they plan to do next. The answers I get are filled with hope and excitement — both for the potential each new finding has to improve human health and for the prospect of unraveling a brand new mystery.