Nikolai Slavov

Objective results from subjective approaches

October 11, 2022 | 2 Minute Read

Scientific results must be objective. Yet, the approaches leading to objective results can reflect subjective points of view. The problems we choose and the strategies we use often reflect our personal, idiosyncratic perspectives. The exact combination of experiments, logic and analysis leading to a scientific discovery often depends on the experiences and inclinations of the researchers. That is a key reason why scientific research benefits from diverse perspectives.

Looking back at my path, I can trace how my student experiences shaped my attitude to research. Growing up with limited resources, I defined my objective as making the most of what I had access to. Perhaps in a self-serving way, I downplayed the importance of resources (which I did not have) and focused on what I had and could control.

This attitude influenced my career choices and research. The tendency to downplay the importance of resources led me to accept a faculty offer with limited resources and no funding for equipment (an LC-MS/MS system) that I needed for my proposed research. I emphasized the ideas that my group may contribute over the advantages conferred by having the best equipment. It is not that I did not understand the essential role of equipment, I just prioritized strategy and ideas.

This attitude naturally led to my group using older equipment for demanding tasks, such as quantifying proteins in single cells. We came up with an approach that worked with the equipment that we could use; we could use it thanks to Bogdan Budnik, a collaborator and friend with equipment access. We reasoned that if the approach works with old equipment, it likely will work even better with new one. Later, NIH funding allowed us to acquire old LC-MS/MS systems, and we continued to develop methods that emphasized ideas over access to the best equipment.

That is not to say that I do not appreciate the value and the advantages of the cutting-edge instruments. I do, and our results demonstrate the superior performance enabled by the latest equipment. It is just that being under resourced did not discourage me from pursuing my research goals, and I never saw access to resources as being my competitive strategy.

Now that my group is fortunate to receive and use state of the art LC-MS/MS systems, I feel the same determination to make the most out of them as we did with the old systems. The question remains what are the innovations that we can contribute. What inspires my approach to science harkens back to my early experiences and values. These subjective elements influence my paths towards objective scientific results.