Plodding along

When family or friends would ask my Dad how he was doing, one of his typical responses was, “Oh I’m plodding along”. He kind of took pride in being a plodder, whether it was getting another cord of wood cut, or the bottom of a boat painted with red lead paint before launch. The work done in it’s own time, and to the specifications he had set for that particular day.

In the world I’ve chosen to live in, it’s kind of expected that one should be a striver and not a plodder, and I’d like to think I’ve striven to do the best science I can. But the fact is, in science, as in many other endeavors, most of us are plodders. Get that next experiment done, read this new paper by colleague X, and finish the page proofs for paper Z, go to committee meeting F. It’s pretty rare that scientists actually get to strive for some remarkable new breakthrough or discovery. There are those who do this with seeming regularity, and they truly are strivers, and rightly, may not be considered plodders.

However, one of my pet contentions is that one of the reasons US science leads the world is that it makes a place for plodders. Researchers who keep the work moving along, gaining an insight here, an incremental step there, and occasionally a substantial breakthrough. These scientists typically run smaller labs, and may work a little outside the mainstream, but are able to get funding and pursue their goals. This is an important attribute of the US funding system that is always endangered, as there is increasing competition for static, limited funding.

In many other countries, science is a bit more hierarchical, with a big chief, some smaller chiefs, and then a bunch of folks (often younger) who do the work. Being a big chief often entails it’s own kind of plodding, most of which has little to do with actual discovery. So, while there’s a cumulative striving, there is also a loss at each connection between top and bottom that results in missed opportunities that might come from seemingly less consequential ideas, or super-inflated ideas as interpreted by the big chief.

Another thing that’s interesting to me is that sometimes when you really dig down to the root of things, the striving stars, running big labs, publishing in leading journals, seemingly making discoveries left and right, are working off ideas that originated with some lesser known light working away at a problem. Essentially developing the nugget of an idea and doing the prep work that sets the stage for a series of breakthroughs. It would be interesting to do a thorough study of this, although it would take a lot of time, because some times you have to dig pretty deep. Furthermore, if the ‘striver’ has not acknowledged the work of the ‘plodder’ at some point, that can make it more difficult, and depressing.

There’s also the ‘plodder’s code’: if you plod long enough and far enough, you may realize you’ve striven to something almost no one else in the world has figured out, and that’s not bad for just ‘plodding along’.

David Emerson

About David Emerson

David Emerson is a professional scientist at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences who studies bacteria that live literally between a rock and a hard place. The views expressed here are his alone.