Tuesday, 27 July 2010

My one and only peak experience in laboratory science

"One evening I had stayed behind to examine some new microscope slides of the human adrenal gland which had been stained to show both the cholinergic and adrenergic nerves. The cholinergic nerves were dark brown, while the adrenergic nerves glowed green under a fluorescent lamp. When I flipped the microscope back and forth between natural light and fluorescent light I suddenly realized that the slender, knobbly green nerves were winding over and around the thick trunks of brown nerves. The two systems were entwined, but the cholinergic nerves were passing through the gland while the adrenergic nerves were releasing their noradrenaline into the substance of the cortex. It suddenly dawned that nobody had ever seen this before. It was a moment of apparently mystical significance, in that twighlit room: I knew something for the first time in human history."

From my book Psychiatry and the Human Condition, 2000. http://www.hedweb.com/bgcharlton/psychhuman.html. 


I worked in laboratory science for about seven years (3 plus years in my MD, a year in physiology - on the kidney, 3 1/2 years in anatomy), doing things like radioimmunoassays, receptor measurements and histochemistry on human blood samples, post-mortem brain and adrenal glands. 

In the above account - from, I guess, 1991 or 1992 - I was using a combination of histochemistry- and immuno-histochemistry on slices of human adrenal which had been removed at operation by a surgeon (a collaborator) as a by-product of cutting out kidney tumour (as the name adrenal implies, the adrenal or supra-renal glands sit on top of the kidneys). 

I seldom enjoyed the actual hands-on aspects of lab science, which was mostly about trail and error troubleshooting in which the ratio of doing to thinking was excessively high; and was pleased to become a theoretician when I found an area (evolutionary psychology) where I had a strong spontaneous interest and something to say. 

But the incident described above was striking, because it was fairly close to the idea that most people have of the way science works - in that it seemed nature was 'telling me', or rather showing me, something that I hadn't been looking for. I seemed to be looking at objective reality. 


Along with my readings in comparative anatomy, I also was finding a larger question within which to work: the question of why the adrenal gland exists in the form it does: a combination of glandular tissue wrapped-around and interwoven-with nervous tisse - and the relationship between these two tissues in the integrated gland. 

In other words, I could try to answer the question of why the adrenal was a unitary anatomical structure, rather than two separate structures.   

So far as I know, the question has still not been answered - indeed, it is likely that nobody is even asking it (obvious though the question seems - you would imagine that this was something sorted-out long ago, probably by some of the late nineteenth century German anatomists)

But there were disappointing aspects, first it was not clear what the finding meant in functional (whole organism) terms - and it pointed towards other methodologies where I could not pursue it (not without retraining and getting funds etc), second was that nobody else was much interested in this (indeed, not many people were interested in the adrenal at all) and therefore the observation was not likely to be pursued, and thirdly that I myself was not terribly interested in the area of adrenal innervation on which I was working: I was not thinking about the adrenal day and night, not prepared to make big sacrifices in order to do my best work. 

Indeed, in working on the adrenal I had already needed to make the decision to work without research grants. Whereas I had no trouble in getting brain research funded in my early years, the adrenal was unfashionable - I had five grant applications turned down, and then I decided to stop wasting my time and instead do what work I could using within-department money (to buy chemicals), and my own labour (during vacations) and student volunteers. By such means I did enough empirical work in three years to publish five or six papers (as I recall) and the idea was cited in Gray's Anatomy. 


From a purely scientific (rather than professional, careerist) perspective, things were going quite well with the adrenals in the lab. 

But my heart was not in it and - as I mentioned above - I would probably have needed to learn some new lab methodologies to take the line of work further. And this lab work was for me just a means to an end - not satisfying in its own right. 

In the end, the critical factor was that I just didn't care enough about this line of work - it was a manufactured enthusiasm. Yet I was making a distinctive personal contribution, and had found a line of work which nobody else was pursuing - and because I didn't do it, I don't think it was done at all. 

(Of course, even if I had done it, and succeeded, the likelihood is that it would have been ignored; as was my other work in this line. The papers were cited somewhat, but it seems that nobody took on board the actual real implications of adrenal cortex innervation.)

So, overall, the adrenal peak experience was a glimmer of how lab science perhaps ought to work, and of the rewards of empirical research; but also an insight into the limitations of science and of my own motivations.