Just because someone is a scientific researcher, doesn’t mean they know about every scientific field under the sun. Seems a given- especially when you’re in the thick of it- but I guess you forget that most people don’t really know that’s how things work. If you watch TV shows or films with a scientist in it, chances are they seem to be an expert in so many different fields. They know everything about infectious diseases, can hack a computer, and maybe they have multiple Ph. Ds? Unfortunately that’s extremely uncommon in real life.
Generally we tend to become experts in very specific niches. I for one don’t know much about clinical research, physics, or chemistry (eep), but know a (relatively) decent amount about one particular intracellular bacterium (#Coxiella). Again, not so much the clinical stuff (enough to write informative reviews), but more the- what happens once it gets inside the host cell, type stuff. I can perform quite a number of different experimental procedures, but I will most certainly be out of my depth if I was given a completely new technique and told to just do it. Sure, I might pick it up a bit quicker than a complete beginner, but I’d be totally lying if I said I’d become an overnight expert (*sigh* I wish).
So- what happens when you want to explore the answer to a scientific question, but don’t have enough knowledge (or experience) in that particular field? Of course, you can read papers (reviews are a good start), but you can also collaborate with someone who is an expert.
When you see the author list for a paper, chances are you’ll see a few names on it. One person might have performed all the experiments, under the guidance of multiple people who are experts in various fields. Maybe people from all sorts of backgrounds got together to contribute different figures, which are now under the same paper. For instance, my first paper (see https://abugslife.online/2019/10/15/what-do-bacterial-pathogens-eat-on-the-importance-of-basic-research/) had me, a predominantly a molecular Microbiology-based person, performing things that were heavily biochemistry based (metabolism and how bacteria acquire nutrients to grow). I don’t have a strong biochemistry background, and we also didn’t have facilities on-site that would less us do some of the experiments… so we collaborated with people who knew lots about metabolism and had equipment that would run our samples for us. We couldn’t have published that paper if it weren’t for all those involved.
And now there’s another paper that’s been published (https://msphere.asm.org/content/4/6/e00660-19):
This one had me infecting some of my Galleria wax moth larvae with a bacterial pathogen called Burkholderia cenocepacia (yeah- spell that one without googling!). The last author needed someone to do some infections in an animal model, and I had the means to do it, so we helped each other out. I’m no Burkholderia expert (they smell- quite literally- that’s about the gist of my general knowledge- ooh, also don’t chuck them in the fridge because they’ll die), but I CAN infect moths.
Science is built on collaborations, so it’s good to network and be on good terms with various different people from various different backgrounds. People with different expertise can bring new ideas to the table, which, hopefully, will make the science better, more robust, and also reliable.
As for me, though, it’s nice that my wiggly worms/larvae contributed to more scientific knowledge.