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May 2020 − Eppendorf News
Eppendorf talked to leading scientists to learn about the challenges they face in their daily laboratory work – and how they ensure the integrity of their results. Find out more about Talia Lerner´s thoughts, and take a closer look at the full article online.
When is a result truly a result? For Talia N. Lerner, PhD, Assistant Professor of Physiology at Northwestern University of Chicago, falsifiability is key: “Nothing is certain, ever. We work with hypotheses that are presumed true until proven false. If you haven’t formulated a falsifiable hypothesis, you aren’t doing science. For me, a ‘result’ is something that comes together when multiple lines of investigation point in the same direction. When very different experiments all fit into a model together, we begin to understand their meaning and can then form new hypotheses to test.”
What do you do to optimize the quality of your results?
“All researchers build on each other’s work”, emphasizes Talia Lerner. “If we get something wrong, others will spend time going down a wrong path, too, or trying to prove us wrong. Ultimately, the quality of our results determines how impactful they will be.” This is why quality in the laboratory matters all the time, at every single step. “If we want to help human patients, we need to be sure we are getting things right. We need to imagine how our results would translate into practical therapies. Proper controlling and careful note-taking are key”, says Lerner. “I rely on my lab members to be careful observers, always looking for reasons an experiment might be contaminated.” Her team does a lot to avoid possible systemic and measurement errors: “We can help each other do experiments in a blinded fashion, set concrete inclusion/exclusion criteria prior to analysis and scrutinize each other’s work for flaws. And we work hard to verify that all our reagents are of high quality and our handling and analysis methods are standardized. Though, of course, it’s always possible that there is something quirky about the lab”, says Lerner. “In the end, cross-validation of our results by other groups is important.”
“We need reliable laboratory equipment and – as I have mentioned – that allows for automation of manual labor”, says Talia Lerner. She stresses that “everyday lab work can be repetitive and boring, but careful science depends on standardization. Some help comes from automation – increasingly, we can make computer programs and robots take over our manual labor and give us more time for creative thought. Until then, podcasts and labmates you enjoy hanging out with are lifesavers.”
What makes science trustworthy?
Some people do not trust scientists, thinking they will fake experiments and work with made-up results. This has little to do with reality, though, if you ask people working in research. “Science is trustworthy because we test our hypotheses”, explains Talia Lerner. “We are open to many explanations of the data we collect – and we actively try to determine which explanation might fit best our observations. While we are never 100 percent certain of a result – there could always be something we missed or an alternative explanation we have not explored – we are always willing to examine things critically.”
Science only progresses when scientists check each other’s work, if they replicate somebody else’s experiment and build on the foundations set by their predecessors. Lerner sums it up: “People should never trust one study (scientists don’t!), but they can trust that the enterprise of science as a whole builds towards truth.”
A likely wise conclusion could be, opinions matter very little with regard to scientific results. We do not get to tell biology how it works; biology tells us how it works.
Talia N. Lerner, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Physiology at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University in Chicago. Her main field of work is the decision-making of our brain: “The goal of my research is to dissect the synaptic and circuit mechanisms of habit formation. I want to know when habits are formed and how habits can be used adaptively to optimize an organism’s survival strategy. Imbalance in habit formation mechanisms are hypothesized to be involved in disorders – such as obsessive-compulsive disorders, autism and drug addiction. Thus, our discoveries about this basic brain process may inform treatments for patients with these disorders.” Professor Lerner is fascinated how we learn about our environment every day: “I think, the role of habit in our daily lives is often underrated.”