Friday, June 19, 2009

Not an expert

I have changed fields three times since I defended my Ph.D. five years ago. All three changes were pretty drastic - different organisms and subject matter - as far as biochemistry will allow. My major incentive was the new techniques I was setting out to learn. I wanted to expand my tool kit and be able to tackle a problem in different ways. However, deep down, my options were limited by the fact that I did not want to move away from my family. I have learned more than I probably would have if I had moved, but after these five years I am lacking research I can call my own.

When I defended my dissertation on a particular plant family of kinases, I thought of myself as an expert in the field. I was ready to challenge the current model and show the world they needed to think outside the box. I knew the current literature but I could not see my advancement in that field without external input. There were many questions to be answered that required techniques that I needed to learn. Tools that very few other experts in the field were actually using.

In my search for practical knowledge I moved to an enzymology lab in which I worked on a metabolic enzyme from bacteria and it's relative from fungus. The enzyme itself was not fascinating to me - maybe because I'm not a chemist - but I learned enough kinetics and structure analysis to open my mind to the possibilities. It was daunting to think of how much I still needed to learn to be able to do what I wanted to do! However, money was short and I had to move on...

My rescue raft was a membrane biology lab, working with mammalian cell cultures. A whole new world... Hence, I immersed in the literature to become familiar with my new proteinaceous best friends and where they lived. I noticed that the learning process became easier with experience, and I managed to feel confident that I knew what I was doing - but not really an expert. Maybe if that postdoc opportunity had lasted longer I would have really gotten into it, but once again money dried up and I had to look for greener pastures.

Once again I find myself scrambling to get familiar with a completely different subject and the literature seems overwhelming at times. Now I'm working with yeast and hormones and unfamiliar second messengers. Who knows how long it will take to feel comfortable in this new environment? Expertise is far, far in the future... I know there is a lot to learn, but I also know that with effort, a day at a time, I will. I might even become an expert if I stay in this field long enough. It did take me almost six years for that Ph.D. after all...

Often enough I browse the literature of my Ph.D. field, and even though it is not foreign to me I know that I am not an expert there anymore. I might still instigate the current experts to expand their horizon, but I have not delved deep into the most recent publications to question the current assumptions. Free-time is lacking, with family and all, and hobbies are hobbies. There are many other things at which I am not an expert... some I care, and some I do not. Time will tell which of those status I change.

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