A renowned molecular biologist, Dr. Kyle Pattinson, visited the UK to give a talk at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History on the future of science.

The popularly-known professor discussed what makes a great scientist, the differences between science and academia, and the current challenges facing the field.

Oxford Is A Mecca For Young Researchers

Although Oxford is most famous for its ancient books and colleges, the city has a vibrant scientific community. Not only is it home to some of the world’s leading universities, but it also boasts an exceptionally high number of research publications.

In his lecture, Pattinson highlighted some of the exciting developments taking place at his alma mater, stressing the importance of interdisciplinary work and of cross-fertilisation between departments. He also emphasised the value of post-doctoral training, which leads to a more diverse talent pool and higher-quality research.

Be Diligent, Creative And Brave

Pattinson defined a great scientist as one who is “diligent, creative, and brave”. He added that there is no single recipe for success in science, but those who are determined to make their mark will undoubtedly rise to the top.

This emphasis on originality and independence of thought places scientific research well beyond the traditional ‘ivory tower’ stereotype. Indeed, the renowned professor pointed out that many of today’s most influential ideas stem from someone who stood on the shoulders of giants and broke new ground.

Pattinson’s definition of a great scientist also reflects the modern-day nature of much academic research. The rise of behavioural science, transgenomics and molecular evolution has seen a dramatic shift in the focus of science away from classic natural history to include more life-like investigations into the human condition.

Why Natural History?

Pattinson was asked by the Oxford organisers to choose a topic related to natural history, as part of a celebration of Darwin’s 200th birth anniversary. While there is no disputing the importance of evolution in determining our modern medicine and biology, the science of natural history also encompassed a wider range of topics such as geology, meteorology and astronomy.

Darwin’s original proposal for a scientific expedition to the Galapagos Islands has long since been implemented, and in recent years there has been a real effort to understand more detail about the natural history of the islands. This has led to a greater appreciation of the unique place that the Galapagos Islands hold in terms of ecology and biodiversity, as well as affording scientists the opportunity to conduct practical field research.

What Is The Difference Between Science And Academia?

Pattinson pointed out that being a scientist and being an academic are not necessarily the same thing, and that the distinction is often blurred. So, what makes up the difference between these two very similar words?

In simplest terms, science is the practical application of research, while academia is the study of science. While there are many examples of ‘pure’ scientists who do not engage with the public, Pattinson argued that it is not the purpose of the research itself, but how it is applied (and sometimes even the fact that it is applied at all) that makes the difference. After all, he pointed out, nobody is going to grant you a PhD in engineering just because you can do the maths.

The application of academic research often takes place in a professional setting, such as a university, where researchers are responsible for the synthesis and critical analysis of new data in order to form new conclusions and tests. In this capacity, they are often required to engage with the public and policymakers, and there is often a substantial amount of writing and presenting involved.

However, academia can also take the form of a Master’s or Bachelor’s thesis, where the research is largely undertaken by the student as part of their coursework. In a nutshell, science is what you do, while academia is what you study.

The Research Process

When asked about the research process, Pattinson described it as “introverted” and “slow”. He said that, as a scientist, he usually begins with a problem and comes up with an answer that may not be the most obvious one.

“The answer is often somewhere in the middle, it’s not an elegant solution but it’s robust, it stands up to more rigorous analysis and it can be applied more widely,” Pattinson said. “So, it’s often a combination of those three things: it’s intuitiveness, it’s robustness and it can be applied more widely. So, it’s a somewhat messy process, it’s certainly not fast, it’s fairly slow.”

Pattinson argued that, as a scientist, one of the most important things you can do is to develop your critical thinking skills, be rigorous in your approach and question everything.

“The best scientists are the ones who can ask the most rigorous questions, who can be the most rigorous in their approach, and who can challenge the most orthodox answers,” he said. “So, they kind of represent the best in every sense of the word: the best empiricism, the best rigor, the best critical thinking. So, that’s what makes a good scientist.”

It is clear from Pattinson’s account that a good scientist must always be receptive to new ideas and, as a result, have an open mind. Indeed, the ability to question everything, including one’s own previous findings, is one of the hallmarks of a great scientist.

“If you look at the great scientists of the past, they all had a very similar character, they were all brilliant critical thinkers,” Pattinson said. “And so, for the most part, they questioned the status quo and they questioned authority. So, I think it really is about being open-minded and having a desire to find what’s new under the sun.

“And that’s why I put faith in science, because I think scientists will always be there to question things, to find things out and to question whether what we thought was true was actually true or not,” he continued.

The Growing Importance Of Post-doctoral Training

In terms of the future of science, Pattinson sees a dramatic rise in the number of post-doctoral researchers entering the field.

“I think that more and more scientists are realising that you don’t have to earn your PhD to become a researcher,” he said. “You can start out as a post-doctoral researcher and you can publish a lot of papers, you can get a lot of data and you can contribute to science in a big way even if you don’t have a PhD.”

In an interview with The Conversation the eminent biologist also discussed what keeps him motivated as a scientist, and how he maintains a healthy work-life balance.

The Importance Of Interdisciplinarity

Pattinson firmly believes that progress in science and medicine is directly related to our increased understanding of how the human body works. This has led to a greater appreciation of the importance of interdisciplinary work, as specialists from different backgrounds come together to form new solutions to complex issues.

“I think there are many examples of where an understanding at the basic science level has led to completely new areas of research that hadn’t previously existed,” Pattinson said.

For instance, in the last few years alone, the Galapagos Islands have seen the emergence of a new scientific field called ‘primate genomics’, which involves studying the DNA of living primates. This was largely due to the fact that researchers were able to combine data from living fossils, with more recent genetic research.

“So, combining information from very old with very new led to many new insights which wouldn’t have been possible if the information had been separated,” Pattinson said.

The Increasingly Complex Weather

One of the greatest things about natural history is that it teaches you about the environment, about changes in the natural world and the way that life is adapted to it. As well as teaching you about evolution, natural history can also inform you about current climate issues, such as rising global temperatures and increasing volatility in the weather.

“I think that natural history is really important because, even at this early stage of climate change, it’s already giving us an indication of how organisms might react to this new environment that we are creating,” Pattinson said.