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June 2017

July 2017

When is good enough, good enough?

In the lab, we spend a lot of time discussing when to stop innovating. Let me explain. Innovation is the heart and soul of science. We must innovate to move forward, to keep learning. But we want to be a translational lab. Our mission is to bring something to the point where it can go out and help patients. In this context, one must decide, when is good enough, good enough? When can we take what we have and stop tinkering with it and making it better and instead move it forward to the next step. One has to decide this knowing that there will always be something potentially better, safer, more effective or more tolerable to be developed. This then becomes and ethical question. When do the potential benefits to patients outweigh the risks of moving the current technology forward. When does the delay in bringing a badly needed therapy to patients outweigh the potential of future benefits of developing the technology further.

The details matter. The answer to these questions depends in large part on the current state of the field. What are current outcomes for patients? Can the disease be managed? Are there current treatments? If current treatments are good and the disease can be managed, the bar is set much higher. In the disease I study, Huntington’s disease, the bar is relatively low. It disrupts patient’s lives, often in their prime. It slowly and progressively robs them of their independence and eventually of their lives. Particularly because of its hereditary nature, it is devastating for families and there is currently no treatment to delay the onset or alter the course of the disease. In this case you may think a treatment that would be expected to delay the onset or slow the progression of the disease might be good enough.

By nature I am a cautious person. I weigh my options carefully, avoid unnecessary risk. I have perfectionist tendencies. Perhaps more accurately, I consider myself a recovering perfectionist. I can be competitive, but when given a choice between winning and being right, I would likely choose to be right. As a scientist, these qualities can be both bad and good. I tend to overthink things, to talk myself out of experiments, to avoid risk. Once started, I find things hard to complete. There is always more that could be done. I can always do better, be better. In life as in work it is hard to know when good enough is good enough. Perhaps in life, as in work, it is good to see the question as one of risks and rewards. When does the risk of inaction become unacceptable? When does the price for achieving the extra 0.01% improvement become too high? And the answer, as in everything is, it depends.

On competition

In some way, I always wanted to be my father. Perhaps that is how I ended up in science, in the end.


My father on a collecting trip sometime before I was born.


My father when he was the beloved and quirky acting dean of Harvard College (it took me a long time to acknowlege to colleagues and mentors that my college was a successful academic. I was afraid they would either think I was trying to drop names or that they would assume that I was driven by a deep seated psychological need to prove I was better than him.)

I wrote the sentence, "If my father has a competitive side, I never saw it."

As soon as it was on paper, I knew it was false. My father, who always won every game, every argument. Of course he has a competitive side, I just never saw it get nasty. Then again, in my memory, he's always been at the top. He's always had the luxury of being in power. So what I'm saying is, I've never seen him abuse his power. That should not be something that is particularly noteworthy, but perhaps it is noteworthy that it is. 

Thoughts inspired by the discussion of competition among PhD research students here: we need to talk about competition