The Emotion Behind Research
By Anisha Rajaselvam
I used to tell people my summer research job was essentially the world’s easiest trolley problem. Every time I walked into the lab, it was as if I was standing in front of a lever with a trolley hurtling down a track about to diverge into two paths. On one path, there were the hypothetical lives of every child who has or would have some form of neuroblastoma that could be further understood by experiments we were conducting. On the other path, there was a tank of zebrafish. And every day, all I had to do was pull the lever to save the kids and let the trolley run over the fish. I know this sounds like the stupidest thought experiment; I can’t think of a single person who would hesitate. This is exactly why I couldn’t explain to myself why I had so much trouble “pulling the lever” every day.
In vivo experimentation has had a long and complicated ethical history. Any lab with approval to conduct experiments with living things has undergone intense approval processes that include detailing humane experimental procedures and justifying the use of animals based on the potential impact of their work. It normally comes down to “the lives of the few sacrificed for the lives of the many.” And over time, this has proven to be more than just a theoretical aspect of the debate; in vivo experimentation has led to discoveries that improve human lives every day. From heart failure treatments to antidepressants to epilepsy care, medical research has depended on in vivo experimentation for novel results.
The use of animal models to protect human lives continues to be debated at length, and while it remains one of the most interesting moral aspects of research, this article won’t be discussing the pros and cons of using animals in medical research. Instead, I want to talk about the emotion behind research.
Science can seem cold, cruel, and calculating. Designed to operate based solely on fact and unbiased observables, maybe it looks like there is no room for emotion. While I concede that the actual scientific method is built to be free of the instability and chaos of human feelings, I disagree that the entire field is devoid of sentiment. The one argument I will make in defense of this opinion? Just look at what motivates research.
Some of the most incredible people I’ve met in my life have been researchers. These are people who have chosen to dedicate their lives to working with other academics in the name of improving the human experience. The personal sacrifices they’ve made, the time and energy they’ve invested in pursuing higher-level education, and the continuous stress of juggling the crushing volume and insane difficulty of the experiments they perform don’t even begin to cover why I hold so much respect for scientists. I don’t think the general media has painted an accurate picture of what research really looks like. I first started working in a medical research lab when I was nine years old, and I still remember one of the first things the professor told me: “99.99% of the experiments are going to fail.” This is the fun part for people who really love STEM; figuring out what went wrong, why it went wrong, designing new experiments based on surprising results… But it’s also incredibly draining. I haven’t even been alive as long as some of these researchers have spent failing in the lab. Every day, they show up not only because they love what they do, but because they have the most unique understanding of how their research could someday improve the world in which we live. Science has to be inherently emotional because researchers are motivated by emotion.
So, when I’m in the lab, and I have to clip the tail fins of zebrafish, I’m doing it because the lab is working towards designing treatments for kids fighting for their lives. In the moment, I am overwhelmed by fear of hurting the little fish that had never done anything to deserve it or guilt that I was even using them in the first place. I decided to set up a system for myself that allowed me to be constantly reminded of the end goal. Every morning, when I walked to the research building, I took a route that passed all the major hospitals downtown. I would pause in front of the SickKids entrance, and see all the children running around and laughing, oblivious to their failing health, as their exhausted parents struggled to hold back tears and stay on their feet. I would see all the nurses and doctors chugging coffee as they ran between hospital wings taking the time to stop and comfort the terrified families. And I would see, over time, the same little kids start to get better because of successful treatments designed by labs in the building I was walking toward. By the time I stepped out of the elevator and entered the fish facility, I would remind myself that the fish couldn’t not feel the processes we carried out and, more importantly, the research was motivated by helping people who were really suffering.
This strategy ended up working for me. Well, kind of. There were some days I could feel a tear run down my cheek as I whispered apologies to the fish I was anesthetizing. There were other days where it would take me a little longer to fall asleep because I was wondering what gave me the right to determine the differential values of lives. There were months where I physically couldn’t bring myself to eat fish. In those moments, I wondered what made me worthy of serving as judge, jury, and executioner. I realize that this probably sounds a little insane to some people, and that’s probably a valid conception. While I’ve gotten better over time, maybe I’m just not tough enough to do in vivo work, and I’d be happy to stick to the world of in vitro. Or maybe this is the sort of discussion we should be promoting in the field. The scientific method is allowed to be objectively unemotional, but that doesn’t mean the scientists have to pretend to be as well.
I resent the narrative that science is unfeeling. The world of research is filled with people who care so much and feel so deeply that they have devoted their entire lives to helping others. Aspects of science have to be calculated and unbiased, but research demands creativity and passion. It is difficult, exhausting, and emotionally draining. It refuses to forgive the human tendency to emote. But it is also ultimately rewarding. We spend so much time reaping these rewards that it is easy to forget that real people are at the heart of science.