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At Cornell

The Nature of Research

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Putting the Pieces Together

Joseph BurnsWhat really is research? What do scientists actually do? What are their frustrations and satisfactions? This issue of Connecting with Cornell (CWC) provides personal answers to these broad questions through conversations that CWC editor Ernestina Snead had in the summer of 2005 with a few of Cornell’s most influential scholars. These discussions also indicate some attributes of successful researchers.

Five Cornell professors in diverse research areas describe the intellectual challenges and also the sheer fun that they have had so far in their research careers. Steven D. Tanksley, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor of Plant Breeding and Genetics, tells about his studies of the evolutionary history of the common tomato and how he cannot “imagine wanting to do anything else in my entire life.” Steven W. Squyres, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy, talks about the excitement of leading the Mars Exploration Rovers, exclaiming, “Nothing is going to top this!” Barbara A. Baird, professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, when recounting her experience of investigating molecular signals in cells, remarks, “I’m just happy thinking about these things .... My hobby is science.” Shahin Rafii, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and director of the Ansary Stem Cell Center for Regenerative Medicine at the Cornell Weill Medical College, when acknowledging the long-term value of his insights as a hematologist/oncologist in understanding blood cancers, realizes “that I have made a big difference.” Perhaps influenced by his family’s seal, “To experiment is the true way,” Watt W. Webb, the Samuel B. Eckert Professor of Applied and Engineering Physics, recalls his continuing quest to see inside cells and, at age 78, describes the many projects that he intends to finish before retirement.

One academic may swirl a beaker of exotic microbes and chemicals while another steers a Mars Exploration Rover across the desolate Martian terrain, but all believe, like Baird, that research is simply “trying to figure out how things work.” To these scientists, research is like a fascinating game that is great fun to play. Tanksley mentions “how interesting it is trying to understand problems and putting the pieces together like a puzzle.” The process involves knowing the basic rules, recalling past facts, and seeking more evidence. Squyres remarks that each researcher is a “detective at the scene of a crime looking for the clues” that nature freely—but maybe not so readily—provides when the correct questions are asked and the appropriate facilities are available.


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