Scientific Method

Baur: What led you to become a physician-scientist? There’s a perception of the “scientific personality”—introspective, dispassionate, a linear thinker. Is that a myth?

Baranski: I started out with a strong interest in biology. But I also wanted to help people. For me, and for many people in research, a driving force is the desire to improve people’s lives. Scientists may be introspective, but we also have to be passionate about our research—it’s what enables us to work hard at it.

Baur: Working hard seems like an understatement. As an MD-PhD, you run a lab and see patients. What’s your workweek like?

Baranski: I treat patients in a clinic half a day each week, and I do 2- to 4-week stints on the hospital endocrinology service. Otherwise, I’m running the lab—discussing experiments, working with graduate students, collaborating, analyzing, and writing. It’s a lot of work, but I love it. It helps that Washington University is a very nurturing environment for the physician-scientist.

Baur: When you get an idea for research, how do you translate it into an hypothesis you can test? How important is intuition and creativity in this process?

Baranski: Intuition definitely plays a role. An idea comes to you, and it seems like a really fruitful direction. This works out sometimes, but intuition can be wrong. It’s a humbling experience to see that your bright idea really doesn’t pan out once you dig deeper. 

One of the interesting things about seeing patients while doing research is that real- life medical problems inspire ideas for study. An idea is a beginning. You can’t study something until you’ve turned your idea into a valid hypothesis—a question that can be answered “Yes or No” by an experiment.

Here’s an example. We’ve been wondering how sugar in the diet might cause the insulin resistance that characterizes type 2 diabetes. This big, intricate idea can be the basis for multiple hypotheses, each more limited than the original idea. We’re studying one such hypothesis under our Institute grant: In the fruit fly, does a high- sugar diet cause genetic changes that produce resistance to insulin?

Progress in science is like climbing a mountain. The hypothesis is a little handhold on the  way to the summit—a secure point to grasp  on the upward climb. Even though it’s small,  the handhold—the hypothesis—has to be firm. If it’s not, not only do you take your own research down, you take down every researcher behind you, who might have built upon your work.

Baur: Can disproving the hypothesis be as important as proving it?

Baranski: Absolutely. The results of a well-designed experiment, whether positive or negative, will guide future research in the right direction—even if it’s not the direction you first imagined. Science constantly diverges from expectations. That’s one reason it can be a long process.

Baur: How does the Children’s Discovery Institute facilitate this complex process?

Baranski: The Children’s Discovery Institute funds research that has the potential for high risk but also high reward. It also fosters the careers of young researchers with fresh ideas.  Without this kind of support, the next big breakthrough for children might remain just an untested idea.

You cannot conduct a large, pediatric clinical study without first conducting many smaller investigations of the kind funded by the Institute. I am truly grateful for this funding, because I know it is the starting point for improving the health of kids.

Todd Baur is a Principal of Conway Investment Research, LLC and serves as a Trustee of the St. Louis Children’s  Hospital Foundation. Mr. Baur is an advocate and supporter of the Children’s Discovery Institute.

Thomas Baranski, MD, PhD is Associate Professor of Medicine and Developmental Biology, with a specialty in endocrinology.