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Petar Todorov | Lab Notes

Probing the unknown

Published: Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, December 3, 2013 09:12

On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., I visited the Library of Congress. The interior lobby of the building is painted with various muses and inscriptions representing the categories of knowledge aggregated and maintained by the institution. One quote caught my eye: “Science is organized knowledge.” In the context of a library, cataloging and organizing research may be the goal of science. This is the case in most science classes at Tufts, where the products of a few 100 years of research are delivered in one semester. I’ve certainly subscribed to the protocol while writing a column for the Daily over the past couple of months — I organized the facts and distilled them to deliver the main point of esoteric concepts.

I also believe, however, that there is more to science than accumulating facts, laws and theories like a library. Science is about rationally probing the unknown; it is about research and, hopefully, discovery. Over the last five years I have worked on various research projects spanning biophysics, chemistry and synthetic biology. To me, the act of gathering data and exploring something new is much more exciting than reading a book or watching a documentary about it.

Tufts has been a phenomenal environment for this, and I believe more undergraduates should try it out. Our campus is full of accomplished and emerging investigators who are bound to leave a mark on humanity’s knowledge and understanding of nature. Cutting edge discoveries in drug delivery, long-term vaccine storage and metabolic engineering have emerged from David Kaplan, Fiorenzo Omenetto and Kyongbum Lee in the Biomedical, Chemical and Biological Engineering Departments. The technology underpinning modern day genomic sequencing got its start in the Department of Chemistry in David Walt’s group. Work done in Mike Levin’s laboratory in the Department of Biology has pioneered the study of electricity and its importance to embryonic development. (I add that this is just a handful of examples. It is neither an exhaustive list of the amazing faculty here, nor an endorsement of the ones listed.)

So, how can one get started on research? If you’re interested in a particular field of study, getting in touch with the scientists working on that topic is the best and most direct way. Most researchers love to talk about their experiments and why they matter since the chance to speak to someone who isn’t involved in academia on these topics is not that common. Emailing or dropping in during office hours is an excellent way to meet an investigator and get to know him or her. If you don’t have a particular direction, Tufts researchers occasionally give talks about their work, and all of their groups have websites that aim to present the big picture. Finally, a good way to find opportunities that are immediately available is to check TuftsLife postings.

What should an undergraduate expect to gain from their research experience? Prepare for failure. Science is about probing the unknown; it is navigation into uncharted seas, not a pleasant sail in littoral waters. Three out of the four projects I have worked on did not proceed as planned. Future work, however, did build on knowing what not to do. In my opinion, the most important lesson, which translates beyond the lab bench, is the analytical thought process and deep attention to detail that science demands from all investigators. This will remain long after one forgets how to set up a specific instrument and can apply to fields beyond research. With a liberal arts education, the sharp divide between science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors and other students should be blurred: Engineers could benefit from an arts history course, and philosophers could get to probe the world firsthand.

Petar Todorov is a senior who is majoring in chemistry. He can be reached at Petar.Todorov@tufts.edu.

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