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Thinking Outside the Lines

Noted researcher Aninyda Bagchi shares his insight into the process of discovery and how to set the stage for students to make their own.
Aninyda Bagchi looking at petri dish

Is there a recipe for scientific success? Or is the birth of discovery more like an improvised magic show?

We asked Aninyda Bagchi, assistant professor in the University of Minnesota Medical School, the College of Biological Sciences and member of Masonic Cancer Center for his input on the matter.

Working in tandem with brilliant colleagues, Bagchi dedicated the past five years to investigating a question that no one else dared to ask, and he recently emerged victorious with a discovery. In a nutshell, Bagchi’s team showed that a prominent cancer-causing gene relies on its unsuspecting chromosomal neighbor for support. This surprising result stands to revolutionize our conception of the genetic ecosystems of cancer.

In his role as a mentor teacher, Bagchi is determined to guide University of Minnesota students towards major discoveries of their own. Read up on some of his strategic insights in the Q&A below.

How do major discoveries begin?

“Big ideas always start with interesting questions—and not just interesting questions, but hard questions. If you go for the easy question, the results will never be anything major.

I tell my students to ask the most challenging question they can—to do something that really scares them. Once they do this, the inhibition starts to fade and the barriers come down.”

What’s the first thing students should do when they ask a hard question?

“Oh—this is the part I love! Students often come to the University with remarkably structured ideas about how the world works.

The first thing they must do is to challenge all their preexisting assumptions. Some might be okay, but some are dangerous. Ingrained assumptions are often the greatest hindrance to achieving their fullest potential.”

How can Principle Investigators help students’ barriers come down?

“The trick is that you have to support your students. You cannot view them as an extra set of hands in the lab to score another grant or secure tenure. PIs should create conditions that expand their students’ minds—I use these rules:

a) Students must not worry about money for doing the best science. If they think they need something, they can’t be afraid to spend.

b) They must understand that as long as they work hard, they will earn their degree—even if they fail to prove or disprove anything.

c) Students get inspired when the questions they're asking are big enough and nutty enough to transform an entire field. They must see that their mentor is willing to stake his or her own career on asking a transformative question—an electrifying way of leading by example.

When all this happens, students can move beyond their comfort zone, but also beyond their anxiety zone, so that they step into a space where their minds become non-linear.”

Non-linear? What do you mean?

“Think about a feather floating through space. It’s not falling straight. It’s not falling like a stone. It carves its own path through air, swerving unusually. When students think this way, they grasp the different strands of the problem. They begin to see connections. That’s how discoveries happen. It’s a fascinating thing to watch.”

When do you know that a student’s mind is moving like a feather?

“They stop listening to you—that’s how you know they’re onto something. They start doing experiments they haven’t discussed with you. After that, I immediately know that I might be wrong, and that I should stop making my own interpretations.

Many of us refer to what these students are doing as ‘following a hunch.’ But it’s not just some random hunch.  It’s the direct result of synthesizing ideas for a very, very long time—usually at least two years. They get lost in thinking about it because they can get into that non-linear thought zone. There, they are willing to take risks. They become sufficiently brash enough to crack tremendously nutty problems."

Earlier, you mentioned the concept of disproving something. Shouldn’t students always try to prove something?

“Not at all! You can always cherry-pick data and try to prove anything. That’s how bad science gets done. If you have a real discovery, the best thing to do is to try to disprove it a thousand times over from a thousand different perspectives. If you’ve got it right, no one will be able to prove you wrong.”

How can you build a team that makes a major discovery?

“You find people who are deeply excited by the problem. Usually, they come from disparate fields. They are brilliant … and often inexperienced. They’re not deterred by how many years it will take to solve the problem. They’ve got the proper mix of entrepreneurship, creativity, risk-taking, stamina, and endurance. They come in to work on the weekend and they sleep under the table.”

What about today’s undergrads? What problems do they stand to solve?

“Right now, we have a glut of big data. We know how to generate tons of data, but we don’t know what to do with it or how to solve the problems it poses.

Today’s undergrads must discover how to interpret overwhelming results, and they’ll have to think outside of the box. The hard part is that 99 out of 100 people might think their unusual new ideas couldn’t possibly work.

Here’s what I have to say to that: Bite the bullet, but don’t fall. Even if you fall, dust yourself off. If you ask the really hard question, and you’ve got a good hunch, and you stand by your idea, huge opportunities will arrive from unexpected sources. You could discover something big.”

How does it feel to discover something big?

“It is deeply satisfying. Beyond words.”