Sunday, October 29, 2006

Angry writes from Planet Research

I have the privilege/onerous task of being involved, albeit in a small way, with some research. It’s not an easy thing to cram into an already packed pathology training programme and much of it ends up being done in my own time. I managed to wangle some time in the research lab using a bit of study leave and I go there occasionally for meetings.

My two main impressions from what I’ve seen are:

It’s like being on another planet
Some of the scientists hate medics

It’s a lab Jim, but not as we know it

The research lab is nothing like the pathology lab. It’s full of weird machines and endless shelves with lines of bottles. In some of the labs they culture cells which some of the scientists assume we also do in pathology. I grew some bacteria once as a med student, that’s the closest I’ve got to it. This is hardcore stuff, though. They’ve got all kinds of human and mammalian cells which look totally different to the fixed and stained cells I see on histological slides under the microscope. These cells sit in little plastic bottles making little ghostly shapes. It’s bizarre to think that they’re alive.

Didn’t they teach you anything at university?

Some of today’s medical students might need to answer in the negative to that question, being as with PBL they pretty much need to teach themselves. I’m a bit more ‘old school’ so I did actually get taught things as a student.

Unfortunately I heard the above comment bandied about when medics in the lab didn’t know some something about science. Interestingly medical school is so called because you learn medicine rather than detailed science. That’s why your doctor can help you if you’re having a heart attack or suffering from Crohn’s disease. Your doctor, however, has not learnt the in depth details of how to sequence DNA, or how a mass spectrometer works. That’s because these are generally not very helpful when faced with a patient with acute asthma, or a resected stomach from a patient with stomach cancer.

My blood began to boil even more when I was told by somebody who knew **** all about pathology that skin pathology was really easy because the only thing you needed to identify was melanoma - which was simple because of its black colour. Sadly I didn’t have a copy of ‘Skin Pathology’ by David Weedon handy. This book is approximately 5 inches thick and contains every diagnosis a pathologist could hope to make on a skin biopsy. It would be a useful aid to the education of such people. Alternatively I could have just hit them with it.

I’m glad to say this attitude did not seem too widespread. While I was there I got talking to a couple of other medics who were there working towards higher degrees. They told me that there was a real ‘anti-medic’ feeling in some labs, one of them was working in a lab that was particularly bad and seemed quite unhappy. It’s made me think twice about getting more involved in research, which is a shame. Some of the scientists I’ve met or worked with were keen to encourage more medics into the research labs and genuinely valued the fact that we have some expertise in a different area to them. I learnt lots of fascinating things, new ways of looking at medicine and disease and generally had my horizons broadened. Spending some time in the lab was definitely worth doing, but the whether it’s worth doing more of and taking the obvious crap that comes with all the good stuff I don’t know.


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