By Mario García Ureña
Sometimes being a researcher – or a student aiming to be one – is a lot like being Alice in Wonderland. The book is often read as a critique of Victorian era nonsensicality, but because of its fantastical setting and myriad of characters, it can be interpreted in a thousand ways. It’s about an escape from boring reality, which is sometimes the same in science.
Of course, science is all about quantifying reality. But it is true that the whole procedure can be so time-consuming that we often end up entering in the rabbit hole of our very specific field, which can be very difficult to dig our way out of.
Over the past few months, I have been working with Mendelian Randomization, specifically Two-Sample Mendelian Randomization. This method allows us to “find” causality between traits simply using summary statistics from genome-wide association studies (GWAS). GWAS summary statistics contain information on the association between traits, or diseases, and changes to individual letters in our genetic code (SNPs). With that information taken from individual data, two-Sample MR tests can be done in five minutes, without the necessity of genotypes, which means that everyone is running MR tests and publishing them like crazy before the fad fades out.
But understanding that your data is not violating some very delicate assumptions, or how the many models work to control for pleiotropy and heterogeneity…, oh boy, that is another matter entirely. I have entered the rabbit hole of MR and I haven’t quite got out of it.
Of course, this brings frustration, since focusing too much on the parts does not let you see the whole. This especially rings true in corona times. I work every day from my room, which is where I mostly rest afterwards and the parallel between working on a niche field and living in a niche magnifies the frustration.
While Zoom/Teams/Skype meetings are doing their best to fill the gap of previous meetings and help us to keep up with the work of your group or the center, the feeling is, unfortunately, not the same. For a week, I thought I worked at the Center for Mendelian Randomization – I forgot what metabolism even was.
I don’t want to end with a sour note, because we are already surrounded by them in the news. While things are slowly going back to normal, I too have managed to both adapt to the new normality and wait in hope for the old one. To avoid the tedium I have rearranged my room’s furniture so the bed and sofa are far from the desk. That way I physically divide my work and rest areas. I also spend more time reading papers and going to whatever meeting I can to keep up with what is going on – beside outlier extraction with the least cherry-picking possible.
It is not easy to find the balance between rest and work, between the parts and the whole, but by going through these times we might become the best generation of scientist at doing so!