As a goodbye present after my PhD defense, a friend of mine gave me a very interesting book: Science, a history. It’s a fascinating account of the birth of the scientific method, with a portrayal of the charismatic protagonists who made scientific discoveries that advanced human knowledge. As I read this, I realized that a great majority of these scientists were not ‘specialized’. They had a broad knowledge across all sciences (physics, chemistry, medicine), and often also other disciplines such as languages (latin in particular, allowing scientists worldwide to communicate and standardize terminology) and the arts.
Of course things were different back then, there was less to learn in the first place, and these early scientists were mostly wealthy men who had plenty of time and money to spend doing experiments! These days, by definition, a PhD is an in-depth study of a very narrow subject. Graduate students and postdocs do get encouraged to read beyond their field, and I think that this helps generate some creativity in hypotheses and scientific ideas. I enjoy browsing the table of contents of journals such as Nature, or Cell, for stimulating articles and a fresh perspective on the science world. Nevertheless, we scientists sometimes become obsessed with a small pet topic which no one else finds that fascinating…
Within the first year of my postdoc, I realized I wanted to keep learning, and not just in science. Luckily, it turns out that Penn is an amazing place for a hungry mind! I started by taking a class for postdocs on Biotechnology Commercialization, taught via a series of invited speakers. Then, earlier this year, I audited a class on Healthcare Management and Economics at Wharton. The professor was so great and the class was very interactive. At first I was a little self-conscious in front of the other (mostly MBA) students, but I soon realized my point of view (that of a biologist), was interesting to everyone else, and the business side of things was (mostly) logical, so I could participate and follow what was going on. I really liked ‘going back to school’ and challenging myself in a completely different subject!
Currently I am taking two online classes via the new education website Coursera. I love the idea that people around the globe can now access world-class courses for free. There are no pre-requisites, so anyone can sign up and give it a shot. I was curious to see how it worked and so far I’ve enjoyed it, although it is a time commitment. The classes are conducted on a weekly basis so all the students learn in synchrony, with deadlines for homework assignments, small quizzes and a final exam. The courses available range from Vaccines (by Paul Offit, from Penn) to American Poetry and World Music! Perfect for branching out, being a bit nostalgic, and trying to emulate the olden day scientists.