Fishing

Joanna Jacobs' blog links to a a NY Times interview with Dr. Janet Davison Rowley, who is 85 years young. She was a doctor who ended up pioneering research on modern cancer genetics.

I meant to just send to the article to my wife. Pru's a doctor. She now does a fair amount of counseling on cancer genetics. She is not 85, though. She's much younger. Right hon?

Anyway, I got drawn into the article. Actually read the durn thing.

Q. Do you think that the type of career you’ve had would be possible today?

A. No. I was doing observationally driven research. That’s the kiss of death if you’re looking for funding today. We’re so fixated now on hypothesis-driven research that if you do what I did, it would be called a “fishing expedition,” a bad thing.

O.K., we knew about the Philadelphia chromosome, and after banding we had the technology to discover gains and losses among the different chromosomes. But once you knew that, what were the implications of the gains and losses? That’s the “fishing,” because there wasn’t a hypothesis.

Well, if you don’t know anything, you can’t have a sensible hypothesis.

I keep saying that fishing is good. You’re fishing because you want to know what’s there.

MATCH Teacher Residency came out of observational research. Started with no real hypotheses. Just started fishing. Watching (and interviewing) actual rookie teachers.

But now we're hypothesis-driven, at least in part. We're no longer a clean slate. I think we're reasonably open to changing those hypotheses, as we get data. Are we really, though?

I went to a good session a few weeks ago. A leading light in the teacher prep world had convened a small group of critical friends. She wanted us to challenge all her teacher prep hypotheses. It's hard though. She, like our program, has made some big bets already on "what works." Her program is much bigger than ours, though. Therefore her bets are bigger.

Significant changes to those bets -- all the systems built around certain beliefs -- will create internal conflict. Conflict requires leadership time to manage well. But there's no more of that resource: much of it is already deployed in growth work.

So it's hard to simply "fish" for what works. If you're hoping for bass, and you catch a foul-tasting carp, you don't want to eat it. Easier to throw it back and keep casting until you land a bass (data that aligns with what you already believe).

* * *

Another nugget:

Q. What was the state of genetics research in 1961?

A. The revolution was far from happening. This was less than a decade after Watson and Crick’s discovery. We were only beginning to have a notion of what DNA was like. There weren’t the right tools yet to stain it, cut it apart, examine and manipulate it.

Still, even with limited technology, there had been some advances. One of the most important came in 1960, when Peter Nowell and David Hungerford of Philadelphia discovered that one small chromosome was about half the normal size in many patients with CML, a type of leukemia. According to a convention at the time, this became known as the Philadelphia chromosome.

I enjoyed my laboratory work with Lajtha. I decided that when I returned to Chicago, I’d try to find another part-time job, though this time in research.

Q. How were you going to do that? You had few research credentials.

A. Well, I had a paper coming out in Nature with Lajtha on DNA replication in chromosomes. So at least I had that.

What I did was go to Leon Jacobson, the director of the Argonne Cancer Research Hospital, which was funded by a block grant from the Atomic Energy Commission; he had a pot of money. “I have a research project started in England that I’d like to continue with. Could I work here part time? All I need is a microscope and a darkroom. And by the way, will you pay me? I must earn enough for a baby sitter.” And he said yes to everything!

This is sort of what we're hoping for in launching a small, unusual Graduate School of Education. We don't have the traditional credentials. But all we want is the equivalent of a microscope and a darkroom.