Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Pretty great line about specialization

Neat story on NPR about Bryan Shaw, an assistant professor at Baylor (in chemistry):
Naturally enough, after his son's diagnosis, Shaw's first thoughts were to do whatever it took to save his son's life. 
But at some point, during the months of chemotherapy, radiation and ultimately surgery to remove his son's right eye to prevent the cancer from spreading to his brain, Bryan started thinking more like the scientist he is.  
He wondered what would have happened if the family camera had been programmed with software that could recognize leukocoria automatically. "If I would have had some software in it telling me, 'Hey, go get this checked out,' that would have sped up my son's diagnosis and the tumors would have been just a little bit smaller when we got to them. There might have been fewer," says Shaw. And maybe Noah's eye could have been saved. But there was no software.
Now, for most of us, that would have been that. But Bryan Shaw, the inorganic chemist, figured what the heck, I'll become a software designer. 
"I was trained in this funny lab at Harvard called the [George] Whitesides Lab, where we scoffed at specialization," he says. "If you were just an inorganic chemist, you weren't cool. You had to go make it in areas totally outside your field."
I had to smile at that.  (And I still believe in specialization, but in this context, there is always room for individuals to learn new things.) 


  1. "Specialization is for insects". (Google the quote to see the rest of it.)

    Life is already full of people trying to put you in a box. Don't make it easier on them by self-labeling yourself.

  2. Another reminder that I'm doomed because I didn't work for anybody famous, or half-famous. Time to learn how to weld at the local community college Im now teaching Chem at....

  3. The fact is that you can't specialise technically/academically without picking up other general, transferrable skills along the way. The above story is a case in point - whist Shaw was a specialist chemist in order to do that he'd had to pick up a broader set of skills around how to solve technical problems and rapidly develop knowledge about new areas. It is these skills that he has used to make progress in this new area.

    Essentially you can really view this in one of two ways:
    1) We can never really truly specialise because becoming an expert requires development of transferrable skills. Or,
    2) We should be afraid of becoming an expert because we can transfer a lot of the important skills outside the technical area - we just need to be aware that we have these skills.

    Although I do agree somewhat with NMH's comment regarding the importance of pedigree in academic chemistry (especially in the US). Name dropping seems to happen all the time. George Whitesides is a fantastic chemist, but I doubt that he is the only academic to encourage his students to think broadly about problems.