Messin' around time

Mar 11 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

I was recently compiling a list of projects a new person coming to my lab could embark on to get their feet wet. These are typically short projects that have a high likelihood of yielding some useful data that could either stand on its own, or be used to test a specific aspect of a larger project. Typically the payoff for these projects is as they say "incremental" but always solid and something to fall back on. Occasionally it leads to something bigger. Usually when a new person joins the lab I'll assign the one of these starter projects and then encourage what we call "Messin' Around Time" (MAT). We actually call it something else, but it's in the same spirit. The idea of MAT, is that said person, once they have a handle on basic  techniques used in lab is encouraged to try all sorts of crazy (but well reasoned) experiments. And the idea is that MAT experiments are basically sketches, which will then give you  a sense whether the project is worth following up. The more improvisational they are, even if imperfectly designed, the better. You might be testing one thing, notice blip in the data, crank up the dial to eleven and amplify this blip which then turns out to be something really interesting. Thus MAT requires the experimenter to keep a heightened level of vigilance, because you never know what will be interesting. It involves looking at your data in real time as much as possible and adjusting the experiment on the fly in order to optimize conditions. I think this improvisational experimentation is a critical exploratory skill that will help trainees formulate hypotheses, and then design proper experiments to see if the interesting effect they just sketched out persists. Since MAT often occurs in parallel with the bread-and-butter safe projects, in the worst case scenario where MAT fails, you still have something to say for your time. I once had a postdoc who would do Freaky Friday experiments. Test all sorts of crazy ideas on Friday afternoons. Most of the time nothing would come of it, but in other case they would end up resulting in a paper. I encourage everyone to do this, whenever possible.

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