Paradox of Research

“Nothing we do in lab applies to what is happening in the wild!” Dr. Heideman tells us the story of his Ph.D. lab PI exclaiming this very unsettling statement. This statement is unsettling not only because it claims to invalidate  what thousands of scientists are doing in labs around the world, but also conveys a stark reminder of the difficulty involved with our attempts to understand the world around us. Similar to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle where location and velocity can not be known at the same time, it seems that scientists are hard pressed when needing to both describe overarching principles of nature with the highly specific and complex mechanisms. This is because the overarching principles of nature are seen by observation of hundreds of variables interacting with each other. One variable defined and influenced by the others. However, to understand the specific mechanism of one variable, one must isolate it and investigate it without the interference of the other variables. But without the other variables acting on this one isolated variable, is this one isolated variable still reflect the variable that is being acted upon in the wild by hundreds of other variables? Because we can only study specific mechanisms by changing the object of investigation drastically from it’s original form, it is hard to know that what is going on in the wild is being reflected in the lab.

In the same way, the mice that my lab have been using to study reproduction are in essence now lab mice. In roughly the 19th generation of mice, the gene pool of the lab mice cannot sustain the gene flow found in the wild. Additionally, the mice in the lab are fed ad libitum (as much as they can eat). They have no fear of predators or have concerns for environmental conditions. They are provided a warm place to stay and are confined to a small cage for their entire lives. All this necessary to isolate the variables and do a scientific study that can produce viable results. However, are these results giving us answers we need? We want to know what is happening in nature, but are these lab mice a good representation of what is happening in the wild? My project is to determine if what we are seeing in the lab can be transferred to what is happening in the wild.