Academia, Career, Economics, Grants, Philosophy, Problems to Solve, Spinal Cord Injury, Writing

Bricks and Straw

MY situation…is daunting

I’ve been preparing a manuscript that will describe a series of experiments I performed, aimed at characterizing an issue of abnormal pain after spinal cord injury. This is the hardest part, at least for me, where I have to decide what to include in the report. I’m planning on submitting it for publication before the end of the month.


You spend days working on analyzing data, only to realize that it doesn’t fit into the entire scheme of the project. You’ve spent a lot of time gathering data that doesn’t make sense. There’s that extra data point that winks at you and says: “Ha, now where are you going to put me?”

Ethically, I’m obligated to talk about that piece of esoteric, nonsensical data. The trouble is, I don’t know what to make of it. It’s that werid cousin you have in the family. You don’t know what to do with him when he’s over for dinner, cuz’ he doesn’t eat meat.

Constructing progress: tactics

Trial-and-error, or careful pre-experimental planning? This is a unique challenge. How much time to spend planning, rather than performing the actual experiment is a tactical choice. I could spend weeks and months reading about and planning for a project, or I can perform the project with a few ideas in mind and see where it takes me. Both have their advantages.

Trial-and-error, or the “fishing-expedition”, is used frequently, but not looked upon highly by scientists as the best way to make progress. It’s risky and has a low return of success for the amount of time invested. However, this approach allows a scientist freedom to be creative and innovative.

For example, in the movie “Dolphin Tale“, the scientist in charge of engineering a new prosthetic tail for the dolphin amputee ends up utilizing a trial-and-error approach. Though the scientist studies what he can from the literature and theorizes how the tale ought to function, he doesn’t know until he tries several prothetic flipper-tail designs. Many of these contraptions fail….(see the movie).

Pre-experimental planning is probably the most used approach. It provides a plan for all the potential scenarios for what might happen within an experimental project. It even has an exit strategy, of when to stop the experiment. The time invested is primarily upfront, and once executed, all labor runs through a workflow designed to meet specific objectives.

Now, I’ll admit, I do prefer to start with the strategy of planning just a little bit, then flying by the seat of my pants the rest of the way. I won’t hesitate to try new ideas or different designs, and do so without planning. If it perks my curiosity, I’ll try it for a while. In this way, I work from a solid framework, but I’m not so rigidly held to that plan that I won’t deviate if something interesting pops up that might require more investigation.

Of course, there’s the bottleneck — scientific progress requires two basic resources: time and money. Without these, it doesn’t matter how motivated, creative or talented you are. You don’t make bricks without straw. Another tactic: good funding. 


4 thoughts on “Bricks and Straw

  1. First question – in the first paragraph, you mention “abnormal pain” after an SPI. Does that mean pain that one would not expect after such an injury, or pain that does not fall into the spectrum of “normal” for an otherwise healthy person?

    Second question – as it so happens, this one is from the second paragraph. You used the words “analyzing data”. Now, I understand that scientists use The Scientific Method as a way to organize their work. By any chance, do they also use employ the Systems Development Life Cycle? If not, are you familiar with it?
    Reading on a bit, I see that you spend months planning, using a method called Pre-experimental planning. Would you mind describing that a bit for us? I only ask, because, as a layman, it interests me. If it’s a tedious task, I’d be more than happy to look it up on my own.

    For that cousin that doesn’t eat meat, just give him extra of whatever he does eat. I don’t know if that helps you in your current problem, as it’s a simple answer to a simple question. Perhaps you can find a simple answer for your more complex concern.

    Wish I could help with the funding. Hey, once I get down to my goal weight, we’ll see if anyone’s interested in my story, and if I make a mint off of it, I’ll be sure to throw some your team’s way.

    • Hi!

      QA1: Yes, the pain is abnormal. It is the chronic, hard-to-manage/treat pain that people experience after injury. Usually, pain disappears after you hurt yourself. Some people, however, hurt themselves so badly (i.e., SCI, or nerve damage) that the nervous system doesn’t heal correctly; the nervous system in such cases produces pain signals that are either above-average, or produce pain signals without any reason at all.

      QA2: I’m not sure what a System Development Cycle is, but I’d like to know more about that since I do employ some kinds of systems for study in the lab. Pre-experimental planning is pretty much my term for the literature research (we used to go to the library to do this; now it’s mostly online database searches) and working out a flow of experiments: If this happens, then we do this. If not, we do that, etc. Almost like planning for a multi-country vacation….or a military invasion, sorta.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      • You know, I visited an old friend yesterday, to offer he help in losing weight, using what has worked for me as a model. It turns out she has some SERIOUS back issue that I wasn’t very aware of, and lately they’ve been giving her injections, which seem to help at first, until her back goes out and then she’s stuck on the ground for at least an hour.

        I’m wondering if she doesn’t have SCI. In any case, I thought I’d throw that out there and see what you think.

        The SDLC has five stages – Planning, Analysis, Development, Implementation and Maintenance. Any computer system you use should have been developed using that method. It is highly proven and if followed properly will give you the best use of your system. It can also be applied to various parts of one’s life.

        In the first stage, you plan the next four stages. In the next stage, you analyze your plans, and thereby, analyze the next three stages. In the third stage, you develop what has been decided on, and make any changes to the next two stages as needed. In the fourth, you implement both the system you’ve been developing, along with the maintenance phase, which continues throughout the life of the system.

        BTW, I’m linking to this post in my blog today.

  2. Pingback: WELCOME BACK! « My Struggle – Losing 350 pounds

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