September 6, 2013

The power of observation curiosity

By Stella Hartono

Over Labor Day weekend, I decided to clean my refrigerator. As I took out the various old jars of condiments and containers of leftovers to be thrown away, I noticed how some of them had developed a fuzzy growth with a clear ring around them. Being a scientific parent, I showed these to my daughter as a demonstration of the anti-bacterial properties of some fungi, then proceeded to throw all of them in the trash and continued with the cleaning.

Later that day, I thought about Alexander Fleming and how other scientists before him had probably noticed the same thing. Instead of throwing his “contaminated” culture in the trash, Fleming took the next step and asked WHY those clear zones appeared around the fungal growth, which led to the discovery of penicillin and the development of antibiotics. That simple question was pretty revolutionary if you think about it; all because Fleming was not very good at practicing sterile technique.
If you look back through history, there were many amazing discoveries and inventions that happened solely because someone observed something that everyone else took for granted and decided to ask “WHY?” Newton and the falling apple. Archimedes and his bathtub. I think all of us would agree that good observation skills are necessary in both science and medicine. I would put forth, however, that being observant is not enough. You need curiosity in the mix, as that is what set the difference between Fleming throwing the contaminated cultures in the garbage vs. Fleming discovering penicillin.

Louis Pasteur once said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” When we are open-minded to seeing all the possibilities in front of us (especially those we aren’t looking for) and take the next step by asking questions…that is when scientific magic happens.

Sir Alexander Flemming

Sir Alexander Flemming. Check out all those petry dishes in the background!

Stella Hartono is a fitfth year MD/PhD student in Dr. Joseph Grande's lab.

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