Insight Centenary: Where’s my hoverboard?

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When will ‘Back to the Future’ be our actual future?

The February edition of the ‘Insight Centenary’ blog series, features our liver cell biology postdoctoral research officer, Thomas Tu, who tells us that scientists do want hoverboards and explains why they’re not here – yet.

Insight Centenary blogs are written by Centenary scientists about their perspectives on science and medical research – and why it’s their passion. // Please show your support for Centenary scientists this World TB Day (24 March) at tb.org.au.

“Yo, it goes science
Yeah, science is amazing
But not to me though ‘cause I am sick of waiting
I’ve been patient
I really have, I’ve been reasonable
Now it’s time to say what I needed to
Dear science, cheers for the iPods
White goods, yeah, thank you for the cyborgs
Top work on the light bulb
That was quite cool
But where’s my hoverboard?
I mean I know you’ve been busy
But no hoverboards just seems a bit piss weak”

Dear Science, by Seth Sentry

I get this sentiment: I’m glad for what we already have, but where’s all the stuff that has been promised? Where are the tricorders? Cure for cancer? Freedom from all disease? With all these scientific breakthroughs that get reported every day in the news, when do the people on the street (or in the wards) get to benefit from them? What are these bloody scientists doing all day?

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The answer is that they’re generally busy with one of the most important, labour-intensive tasks of the day: planning. It is not glorious; Australia’s Master Experimental Designer is unlikely to become the next reality tv hit. But it is necessary, grinding work, which takes up a lot of my mornings.

The trouble starts in just figuring out a problem to solve. Scientists are into finding out new things about the world. So, I need to know what hasn’t and, more importantly, what has been done before. Hundreds of new research papers are published every week, so just keeping up to date is a large chunk of the day. Not only is the current state of my field important to know, but also the likely future state. As research projects can extend out to years, I need to predict what people are likely to do and hopefully not find out in 6 months that someone else has already beat me to it.

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After defining a question, the Sisyphean game of snakes, ladders and experimental design begins:

What experiments will I use? After estimating from what is already known, if your proposed technique will not be sensitive, accurate or specific enough for what you expect to find, go back to square 1.

But, of course, sensitive, accurate and specific experiments are most likely expensive. Due to very competitive grant funding, most labs are strapped for cash. Can I afford to do these experiments? If not, go back to square 1. Even if I can afford them, can I do the same thing for cheaper?

OK, now I’ve got an experiment that I expect will answer my question and I can afford. Do I have the equipment and expertise to do the experiment? If I can’t do it or don’t know how to do it, again back to square 1.

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There are many factors to consider when designing experiments.

Fine, I can technically and financially do experiments. Will these experiments be done ethically and safely? Once human and animal experimentation are on the cards, a whole lot of legal and ethical issues suddenly materialise. Do you absolutely have to use animals to answer your question? Is there no other way (regardless of technical or financial constraints) that this research could be conducted? REALLY? No, I thought not, go back to square 1. Same thing goes if harm to animals or humans is not being minimised to the lowest possible degree.

And, at the end of the day, will the results of this experiment be convincing, or is there another phenomenon that could explain the results? If the expected results are not going to make a strong case, you know where to go.

The planning doesn’t end at overall experimental design; the actual doing of the experiment also needs to be planned. Is the machine I need free? Have we got enough of the chemical I need? Will starting my experiment now mean I have to come in at midnight to check on my results? Will I have a gap in the experimental protocol to have lunch? Do those unexpected results I got last week mean that I have to redesign all of my experiments? At this stage, it can feel like a scramble to put out spot-fires.

But after all that planning and addressing all those problems, you need to deal with how the world actually is. After years of research, the answer to your question may turn out to be that there is no viable solution. The limits of the physical universe, the complexity of life or societal constraints may mean that universal cures for cancer, freedom from all disease and, yes, even hoverboards will not show up any time soon. This is to be expected when you are researching and finding out something for the first time in human history. Despite this looming possibility, I hope and foresee scientists continuing in their attempts into the future. I just ask you to be patient with the hoverboards. We want them too.

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Centenary Research

Thomas Tu is the lastest member of our Liver Cell Biology lab

About the author: Thomas Tu is a postdoctoral research officer working in the liver cell biology laboratory under Dr Nicholas Shackel. He is studying the changes that occur in the liver cell population before and during the development of liver cancer. Previously, he has been a regular contributor for The Advertiser newspaper and the owner of the (now defunct) blog “Disease of the Week“.