University of BristolAutoimmune Inflammation Research

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These are pieces written to desribe what it is like working in science.

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How to find a research problem

Finding a good research problem is tough thing to do. From a distance, it appears easy. There are so many things that we need to know: how to prevent childhood leukaemia; how to reverse global warming; how to maintain a stable economy; how to treat autoimmune disease. Then as you approach these questions more closely, they reveal themselves to be too large to tackle in one go: They have to be broken down.

When you do this, you suddenly find yourself with the choice of thousands of small problems. Now, you may be able to figure out ways to investigate these fragments, but you have to choose which is the most important.

Many of them will already have been studied by others. You may believe your research is relevant and unresolved, but what if someone else has already discovered the answer you are still looking for? Finding this out can be a lengthy and frustrating process. It has brought many of us to tears.

What's more, now you are dealing with something that is only a small piece of a big puzzle, it may not be important at all. How do you feel, when you tell your colleagues what you are doing and their reaction is 'so what?' Now you have to have the stamina to do the experiments well, so that the results are unambiguous, even if for most people they are unambiguously boring!

In summary the ideal research problem is something that can be solved, but hasn't been yet. It's important enough so that your peers can understand the value in doing it, and if you design the experiments well and are lucky, when you have finished working, the results are clear and interesting. Then you can count that problem solved, and all you have to do is find the next one.

Lindsay Nicholson.

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