Birdsong and Braininess: How Occam’s Razor is Sometimes Dulled

Huang Fellow Erica Langan Reflects on a Seminar with Dr. Steve Nowicki

“This is a story of loss.”

Addressing a room of twenty bright-eyed, ambitious junior researchers, Dr. Steve Nowicki opened with this line. For the next hour, he wove a thought-provoking tale of curiosity, dedication, and principally disappointment. At intervals, he’d interrupt his own narration to infuse the story with telenovela imagery, at one point remarking, “This is where the ominous clouds roll in.”

Dr. Nowicki spent twenty years of his life crafting and working to support an elegant hypothesis linking better song-learning abilities to superior cognition in songbirds. And then, he disproved it. Reading his paper published in Animal Cognition in 2016, the weight of this presumed failure manifested in statement after statement of contradiction:

“None of the 15 correlations are significant (all P> 0.05).”

“…the results still do not cleanly support the basic hypothesis.”

“…the significant results from our study that can be compared against past studies are not consistent with the results of those studies.”

Admittedly, it was hard to stomach. It was hard to imagine myself in his shoes. Maybe that’s because this scientific paper was not like any I’d read before. And Dr. Nowicki’s presentation was not at all like the poster presentations and science seminars I’d frequented on Duke’s campus during the year—brimming with neatly packaged projects and remarkably low P-values, where researcher and audience alike could sit back and admire successful experiments and statistical significance. Why was this the only typeof resultsI’d seen? Because this is the only type that institutions like Duke want to publicize, that journals like Cell and Nature want to publish, that researchers want to share. Success makes headlines; failures are swiftly swept under the rug and deftly downplayed when applying for future grants.

But Dr. Nowicki told a very different story. He told a very human story.

Huang Fellows listen to Dr. Steve Nowicki“ width=

About a week before Dr. Nowicki’s talk, I spoke on the phone with my grandmother. She asked about my research this summer, so I explained the basics of my lab’s research and the future implications of our studies in lung cell regeneration and tumorigenesis.

She lauded me for my efforts (in typical grandmotherly fashion) and went on to praise the field of biomedical research. She reminded me of all the medical mysteries that are still fertile grounds for discovery—diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cancer…and then she said something that made me stop and think.

“We’re all here hoping that science will be able to figure things out.”

Science will be able to figure things out.

Who is science?

I find that two parallel dialogues exist when we discuss scientific research. The general public—people like my grandmother—perceive scientists as superheroes, with capes that flap in the wind and the power to shoot cures out of their fingertips like spider silk. It’s gone so far that science itself has taken on this ambiguous, omnipotent persona. But within the lab, we as scientists are nothing more than Clark Kents.

I used to subscribe to the publicly held conception of the untouchable scientist. And now here I am, suddenly on the other side. And I don’t feel invincible. Given, I’m only an undergraduate—I lack the technical skills and comprehensive knowledge of a senior lab member. But I look around, and my PI isn’t invincible either.Mistakes happen. Often. Sometimes it’s pipetting the wrong solution or dropping a test tube…other times it’s building years of work around a fundamentally false supposition.

Scientific findings present as unfeeling, but research is a very human art. Perhaps not every hypothesis is supported or disproved in dramatic telenovela fashion, but every scholar faces trials and tribulations. Every researcher faces pressure from universities, governments, funding organizations, peers, and an overzealous public to publish viable(preferably revolutionary)results. And it is precisely this discord between expectations and reality that leads some scientists astray—that leads to falsification of data, manipulation of statistics, and other episodes of research misconduct. As scientists strain to achieve this superhuman ideal, they become less human themselves.

In many ways, the scientist has unintentionally become the man (or woman) behind the curtain. And maybe some of us feel more secure that way, blindly believing that “science” (whoever that is) will take care of everything.Maybe we trust facts and figures more than feelings. But understanding science as a human pursuit reminds us of the very human needs that accompany it—needs for companionship, for consolation, for mentorship, for humility.Dr. Nowicki cited one of the most important means of maintaining integrity in research and coming to terms with one’s mistakes to be“finding collaborators to tell you you’re wrong.” In other words, by breaking down the insular façade of the all-knowing, invincible scientist, we can lean on each other as we navigate the ups and downs of a career that is anything but predictable.

This is why Dr. Nowicki’s closing line was perhaps most relevant of all—in science, as in life,

“It takes a village.”

Erica Langan, Huang Fellow ’22

Erica LanganErica is from Cincinnati, Ohio and is currently planning to major in Biology with minors in Global Health, Spanish, and/or Linguistics.