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   The Value of Questions

Asking questions is a hallmark of science. In fact, we often tell students there are no bad or stupid questions. While that might be true in the classroom, does it apply in the research lab? I suppose a great deal depends on whether questions are being asked of nature or asked of a person, such as me the teacher. When a student asks me a question, I read between the lines to interpret his or her level of understanding from the phrasing of the question. I try to infer what the student is trying to understand. Any question can be of value if I can understand the question and provide a useful answer to the student.

drawing of hands raised

I saw a simple study posted on a Web site addressing whether the aphorism "Ask a silly question and you will get a silly answer" is correct. The results were that people generally give serious answers to silly questions. Nature was never so easy to me as to give me a serious answer to a silly question.

Isn't the development of a scientist really the development and refinement of the ability to ask questions? What do we mean when we say that a scientist has good taste and judgment? How does a student develop these qualities and learn to judge which questions are important, which are timely, and which are approachable? How do students learn to anticipate the various possible answers to a question and then determine which will be interesting, which will merely be consistent with preconceptions, and which will force a new way of thinking?

How are our scientific values and behaviors shaped? When do we learn to hold parsimony in high esteem? When do we develop a respect for elegance and how do we learn to recognize it? For me, and I assume for many of us, there was no course, no didactic activity to teach the ways of science. We learned by emulating those around us-advisors, senior graduate students and postdocs, colleagues, and visitors. The question is whether this teaching mechanism is a conscious effort-a specific pedagogy-used by the research advisor. To me, it seems a little hit or miss.

How does our understanding the acquisition of good questioning skills inform our ideas about student training programs? What are the lessons for training and, in particular, what are the lessons for activities intended to develop competitively trained underrepresented minorities? Are all active research labs good sites for the development of minority students? Should student training be limited to active research labs? Within a program is there a group ethic, a standard of care if you will, regarding how the nature of research and the requisite skills are imparted to students? Or is the development of the next generation of diverse scientists left to individuals?

As always, I would appreciate your comments and feedback.

Dr. Clifton Poodry,, Director, MORE Division, NIGMS, Room 2AS.37, 45 Center Drive MSC 6200, Bethesda, MD 20892-6200, Tel: 301-594-3900

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