On Maintaining Technical Proficiency

May 1, 2016
I.S. Krull, P.T. Kissinger
LCGC North America
Volume 34, Issue 5
Page Number: 310–311

A commentary on maintaining and growing technical competencies and the effort that is required.

 

For scientists in any field, staying current with new developments is essential. The irony is that today, when we are flooded with information, keeping up with what matters is actually a bigger challenge than it was in the past.

If you are young, you may think that you have nothing to learn from us, as we have both passed the usual retirement age. It’s true that things have changed drastically since we started our careers. At that time, there were fewer journals, very few trade publications, and no electronic communications devoted to science. “Keeping up with the literature” meant weekly browsing sessions in the quiet of a local chemistry library, admiring the latest journals as they arrived week by week. The information reviewed was at least a year old.

But like you, we live in today’s information tsunami. And like you-we hope-we maintain a deep desire to continue learning. In our case, our focus is on analytical chemistry applicable to health care advances, but the same challenge exists regardless of your specialty.

Drinking from a Fire Hose

In this Wiki-search-engine-internet age with daily tables of contents, free educational videos, trade publications, webinars, e-books, and websites of innovative vendors, “keeping up with the literature” has an entirely new meaning. Although almost all of these resources are free in a financial sense, they overwhelm us by taking our most valuable asset-time. Identify the sources most useful to you and focus on those.

Your university or company pays substantial sums to give you unencumbered access to peer-reviewed science. Today, there seems to be a “bubble” of journals, and many are pretenders with similar titles. One must be discerning.

The Special Case of Analytical Chemistry

The field of analytical chemistry is perhaps a special case. The vast majority of published papers have essentially the same title: “Determination of X in Y Using Z.” While we’ve both published plenty of “Determination of X in Y Using Z” papers, such papers are rarely of interest unless X or Y is of interest. What really excites analytical innovators is when Z is both new and productive. The most important literature to keep up with is in the 1%, where those new measurement technologies are explored. For 95% of the papers we see, we read only the abstract, figure captions, and the concluding paragraph.

Our field has advanced so far in the last five decades that we are not exaggerating much if we say that with modern instrumentation we can determine any relevant substance at a relevant concentration in any relevant sample. Of course, what is relevant has changed a lot in those five decades, typically by a factor of 1000 or more in concentration, volume, and spatial resolution. The greater the magnification, the more we can see and the more challenging the validation. These advances are one source of the widely described “replication crisis in science and medicine.”

Browse, Too

On the other hand, while we are talking about the importance of triage and carefully choosing the information we consume, we also want to put in a plug for randomness. Few of us read intact journals today; most search for relevant articles with search engines. This is a logical and necessary approach, but it also means that we miss the unexpected connections that come from browsing. We recommend subscribing to at least one multidisciplinary general science journal such as Science, Nature, The Scientist, or Scientific American. Advances often come from unanticipated connections of the previously unconnected. The more you see, the more you’ll find. Serendipity often beats planning.

Joining Still Matters

Both of us woke up one day to discover we were 50-year members of several science organizations. Why did we join groups such as the American Chemical Society (ACS), Sigma Xi, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)? We joined for the networking and the information resources. Back then, these organizations were more exclusive, and joining was necessary to get personal access to the journals. That was also how job opportunities came to the forefront. We went to conferences to hear about and see the latest innovations.

But even if the reasons for joining those organizations have changed, it still makes sense to meet peers face to face locally, nationally, and globally. Don’t just focus on the national and international conferences. Look for local scientific organizations and discussion groups. Some of these are chapters of national associations, such as ACS, American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists (AAPS) or the Association of Analytical Communities (AOAC), and others-such as the Minnesota Chromatography Forum-are independent. These groups often meet in the evening, bringing together scientists from companies, government, and academia to review new developments. There often are a keynote speaker, a few posters, and a sponsoring vendor. In addition, keep your eye out for talks at local colleges and universities.

Another growing concept is that of a journal club, analogous to a book club. Members read a selected paper and comment on it, ask each other questions about it, and come to conclusions together. In some variations, members concentrate on particular components of the paper and report to the group.

Every productive scientist is a node in a dynamic human network that grows and evolves over time. This network must be nurtured by maintaining existing technical relationships (such as pals from graduate school) and developing new ones.

Conclusion

Maintaining and growing technical competencies requires effort. We both remember scientists several decades ahead of us who failed to keep up with important developments. For example, there were some who never fully grasped the development of liquid chromatography (LC) circa 1970 or LC coupled with tandem mass spectrometry (MS-MS) circa 1995.

For young scientists, the bigger problem is not failing to change with critical new developments, but failing to be aware of work that came before (reinventing the wheel) and thinking that answers will just fall into your lap in the first screen of your search.

In today’s world, the volume of available information resources can be overwhelming. It is clear that the signal-to-noise ratio has gotten worse rather than better. Each of us must triage carefully. There is no alternative to carefully selecting the information resources most relevant to your work, while acknowledging the fact that opportunities for surprise insights may be lost. Supplementing your carefully selected sources with one broad science read can help compensate for that loss. Good networking with your peers can also help broaden your horizons.

I.S. Krull is a professor emeritus in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. P.T. Kissinger is a professor in the Department of Chemistry at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Direct correspondence to: petekissinger@gmail.com and irask@aol.com