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Tuesday, December 29, 2009


My blogcation* was a little longer and more complete than I had initially planned, as I failed to get around to my planned 'TWOTI' posts and even ended up missing a week of quotations (some mid-week quotations will go up tomorrow, never fear), so I apologize for that. I had an excellent holiday, though, and now it is time to get back to being productive.

Now that I am a month and a half into my job as a research assistant at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, I am starting to settle into a routine and feel the inklings of productivity in my work. The research focus of my lab is far more clinical than anything I have ever worked with before, and this has made the learning curve rather steep. Even when I was doing EEG research a year and a half ago I was still investigating the limits of information available within the EEG signal. This meant that our research was more an exercise in data mining and scientific computing than one in neurophysiology. My current lab, however, performs research on three well defined pathological conditions: stroke, metastatic brain tumours, and multiple sclerosis (MS). Thus, when it comes to reading papers and learning analytical techniques I am suddenly faced with a sea of new terms describing the various disease pathologies.

Any drastic shift in research focus tends to be accompanied by an uncomfortable slew of new terms. The daunting volume of complicated unknown words can be quite discouraging. Likewise, it is often disparaged by the ignorant as one of the 'faults' of science (usually with phrases like, "Those elitist scientists fancying up their work with hard to understand jargon just so they sound more important"). While not at all a novel idea, it is well worth pointing out on the occasion that jargon is a necessary evil resulting from the fractal nature of knowledge. The more closely you look at any field, the more subtle aspects are revealed that require new descriptors and manners of discussion.

I have immense respect for accomplished scientific communicators like Isaac Asimov and Richard Dawkins, but their profound talent is a result not of their ability to avoid jargon. Rather, they deftly weave scientific terms into the narrative, making them accessbile with only marginal effort. After all, it is not as though 'phenotype' and 'fitness function' are terms only bandied about by amateur biologists and laymen, but they are terms used prolifically throughout many of Dawkins' popular biology books where they enhance rather than obfuscate the discussion. Thus, while I will likely continue to bemoan the unpleasant task of wading through medical terms like juxtacortical lesions, immunohistochemistry, and some worse ones which I am currently failing to even recall, the fact remains that those terms have important meanings and I'm going to have to just settle down and learn them.

* I know it is tacky to invent words with 'blog' in them, but oh well. I assume I will need future vacations from blogging, so I might as well start tossing a term around. Doing so in the post on jargon seemed to be fitting.