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Published Feb. 2, 2015

The Cloud: Metaphors from a Systems Biologist

I am always in search of good metaphors.  Lately I have been collecting some gems from the sciences.  That seems an appropriate place to look for them since clicker training is science-based.  The two newest additions to the collection come from systems biologist, Uri Alon. The first is The Cloud and the second is “Yes, and . . . Learning to Grab a Whale By The Tail”.  I’ll describe The Cloud first and leave you guessing about the other for another day.

The Cloud
Imagine yourself as a graduate student just beginning work on your thesis project.  You have spent thousands of hours studying the results of other people’s research, but you know next to nothing about the research process itself.  That was the situation Uri Alon found himself in when he entered graduate school.

He had a question and some assumptions about what his results should be, but when he began his experiments, the results did not follow a straight line trajectory towards the expected answer.

He became so frustrated and depressed by his project that he began to feel that he did not even belong at the University.  He had read about great research results, but not about the process that brought researchers to these discoveries.

Somehow he made it through his first project only to find himself floundering about again in the same emotional turmoil when he embarked on his second thesis project.   When he asked other graduate students what they were  experiencing, they confirmed that it was much the same for them.

The frustration did not end there.  When he became a professor, he again encountered the uncertainty of what to do.  How do you choose a research project?  How do you mentor others through the process of doing research?  All those thousands of hours of study that had brought him to his own lab were not enough to answer those questions.  Journal articles reported on the end product, not the hundreds of tedious hours researchers spent going in wrong directions.

Does this sound familiar.  I can so easily rewrite this:

Imagine yourself as a first time horse owner.  You have read everything you can get your hands on about riding.  You have spent who knows how many hours reading about the results of other people’s training experience, but you have very little direct knowledge of the training process itself.  You know how to ride, but you have always been on horses someone else has trained.  You know how to direct them literally from point A to point B, but you know very little about what was done to get their training to this point.

But not to worry.  You have bravely bought your first horse, a youngster who presumably was started under saddle.  You are slowly discovering that your basic assumptions about how much this horse knows are not quite a match with reality.  But that’s all right.  You’ve read the books.  You subscribe to all the popular magazines.  You’ve memorized the steps the authors describe for dealing with the problems you’re encountering, so you head out to the barn filled with confidence that you will soon have your horse sorted.  That’s when you discover that A does not always lead directly to B.

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