Science, Pandas and Kung Fu

If you’ve had enough biology lessons for the week, today will be a treat. This post is mostly for fun, but will highlight a problematic issue of modern science. Scientists today are working collectively on complex, large-scale problems, but individually we tend to be highly specialized. In an example from this blog, you are probably already at your limit as to the amount of information you would like to know about photosynthesis from earlier this week, but I am just getting started so hold on to your pants (but not today). This specialization is important for pushing the limits of our knowledge, but are we becoming over-specialized to the point of not being useful? This struggle between overspecialization and awesomeness can be summed up in the relationship among Pandas, Science and Kung Fu. See figure below.

PandaVenn

Science: This is the logical process by which we investigate our physical world to create new knowledge and solve life’s problems. It spans topics from the subatomic to beyond our universe, over timescales from nanoseconds to light-years. It is comprised of fields as diverse as medicine, ecology, chemistry, physics, math, and astronomy.  The breadth of issues related to this term is too great for complete understanding by any single person.

Pandas: The Giant Panda is an endangered species with characteristic black and white markings that inhabits the mountains in China. This lovable-looking member of the bear family has the typical digestive tract of a bear (one optimized for eating meat) but their diet primarily (99%) consists of bamboo. Because this fibrous plant material is poorly absorbed by their digestive tract, giant pandas spend the majority of their time eating 20 – 30 pounds of bamboo each day. This dietetic overspecialization leaves the giant pandas vulnerable to extinction as their habitat is lost.

Kung Fu: No, it’s not just about martial arts, but the general process of training to ultimately achieve excellence. It’s a Chinese term that refers to any study or practice that requires patience, effort, and time for achievement. It represents an accomplishment attained at the expense of great energy and time.

Kung Fu Panda: The 2008 Dreamworks movie Kung Fu Panda tells the story of Po, a dreamer whose love of Kung Fu was greater than his athletic deficiencies. He is able to transcend his outward appearance, lack of confidence and inner fears and become the hero he needs to be. With the right motivation and a dedicated teacher, amazing things are possible.

“There is no charge for awesomeness … or attractiveness.” – Kung Fu Panda

Science Pandas*: Science requires a certain degree of specialization when it comes to technical competency, but as a scientist, you don’t want to end up in this area of the Venn diagram. When you start to combine these two terms, things can get dangerously counterproductive. At this point, your research area or your experimental competency is so narrow that you are unable to answer the questions your prior research has spawned. The nature of scientific progress makes it very dangerous to be a ‘Science Panda’ because new methods and discoveries are constantly being made. If you don’t adapt, your habitat (research area) will be lost and you will go extinct.

Kung Fu Science: The combination of these terms represents the harmony of focus, effort and patience with the scale of scientific research. Sounds like a Ph.D. thesis, right? In this sector, you are able to productively combine your specialized knowledge and technical abilities with a bigger scientific question. Kung Fu Scientists are also able to offer their talents to benefit the research of other Kung Fu Scientists. This leads to ultimate achievement of excellence in your research area**.

Kung Fu Panda Science: “Skadoosh!” If this were real, we would probably “all go blind from over-exposure to pure awesomeness.” I imagine the character Po as a scientist in this fantasy genre. He is still a martial arts master, which provides excellent ‘transferable skills’ in a wet laboratory or programming environment. Alternatively, this could relate to scientists that actually study giant pandas and practice ‘Kung Fu Science.’ This nexus of skill and focus would definitely save the species from extinction.

What’s a scientist to do? Stay away from being a Science Panda.  Don’t become so specialized that you fail to answer your research’s next question because ‘that [technique, research area] is not what you do.’  This doesn’t mean that you must master every possible technique and memorize minutiae of every research field. This is impossible. Instead, practice Kung Fu Science. Balance your focus with larger research problems. It requires making friends (aka collaborators) as your research takes you in new directions. Try taking a broader approach to the articles you read and the scientific talks you attend. Have a wider circle of non-science friends and a crazy hobby to connect you with other people and experiences that may give you new insights. Common themes abound in our physical world and inspiration comes from unexpected places; the answer to your next question could come from anywhere and you have to be adaptable enough to pursue it. We should all be more committed to these kinds of activities to strengthen our scientific community.

If you’re not a scientist, how does this apply to you? You should also have a healthy respect for the effort and focus (aka Kung Fu) scientists apply to their work. BUT- the problems scientists are investigating should never be so far-removed from your everyday life that you can’t see why it’s important. This doesn’t mean that all research must be applied or obvious, but given 2 minutes-worth of background, you should be able to connect the dots. Don’t be afraid to ask ‘stupid’ questions, they may just provide the unexpected insight the scientist needs for their next experiment.  Also, whatever it is that you do, Kung Fu it!

fortune cookie

Johnna

*’Science Panda’ was inspired from a previous discussion on research specialization with Postdoc Street who formally coined the phrase in a Facebook comment. This is not to be confused with Panda Science, because that is useful for keeping these interesting creatures from going extinct.

**For those of you still in graduate school, your imminent achievement of success will be getting your Ph.D. Apply the principles of Kung Fu to your science, but instead of getting a colored belt at the end, you get a hood.

***Maybe Kung Fu Panda and/or Kung Fu Panda Scientist will have a cross-over adventure with Dr. PhD someday. Maybe we’ll have to rescue a Science Panda.

References:

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/10/111017-pandas-bamboo-bacteria-plants-meat-bears-animals-science/

http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/giant-panda/

http://nationalzoo.si.edu/animals/giantpandas/pandafacts/default.cfm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kung_fu_%28term%29

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6 thoughts on “Science, Pandas and Kung Fu

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  5. sarahjose

    Hi, I’ve just been having a nose through your archive and came across this. Brilliant! I sometimes do think “well I don’t know how to do that!”, so now I can just warn myself not to be a science panda and get on with it! 🙂

    Reply

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