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WORKING LIFE

By Julian G. West

Fortune favors the well read

“Y
ou found that in what journal?” My adviser, sitting across the desk from me as we discussed
my next research project, raised his eyebrows in surprise. We had recently finished my first
project and realized that our methods had some limitations. We needed to redesign our ex-
periments, so I had done a lot of thinking and reading and had collected some preliminary
results on new approaches. And based on some surprising sources, I had come up with an
unusual proposal for advancing past the obstacles we had encountered.

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“Actually, two journals,” I replied for whatever might come along
somewhat sheepishly, “Inorganic in the lab. My biggest fear is the
Chemistry and The Journal of Phys- one that got away, the important
ical Chemistry.” We are organic discovery that I missed because I
chemists, and although the differ- couldn’t see it for what it was. It’s
ence between our field and those this fear that drives me to cast my
represented by these two journals intellectual net widely, so that I
may seem small to a nonchemist, have the broad foundation I need
to specialists they are practically to see my research from multiple
different planets. Neither of these angles. Given the limited num-
journals is usually found near the ber of hours in each day, it can be
desk of a card-carrying organic tempting to read only in my sub-
chemist—yet here we were discuss- discipline, but I know that doing
ing these two papers, the more so would ultimately limit the kinds
recent of which was published of connections I can draw. Fortune
2 decades ago. favors the prepared mind, as Louis
“I know that this sounds crazy,” Pasteur famously said to explain
I continued, “but look at the re- “I read widely to prepare his scientific success, and I am
activity that they saw.” We craned myself for whatever might doing my best to be prepared.
our heads over the printouts. The That conversation with my ad-
authors of these papers had given come along in the lab.” viser was a few years ago. The in-
little thought to whether their re- tellectual leap inspired by those
sults had much bearing on our field—they weren’t organic old papers enabled me to finish and publish my project,
chemists, after all. However, being good scientists, they had and I am now wrapping up my Ph.D. studies. As I look
made copious observations during their experiments, and back on my graduate career, I realize that it’s been re-
sure enough, some had interesting implications for our plete with these sorts of situations. Time and time again,
studies. “I see what you mean,” my adviser said, “but I don’t strange observations in the lab reminded me of a paper I
know how you find these papers.” had read in some far-out journal, or a seemingly irrelevant
The answer is pretty simple: I aggressively curate and visiting speaker’s talk suddenly led me to understand a
monitor the notifications I receive about newly published result that had been bugging me for weeks. These are my
papers, and I read those that strike my interest, even if favorite moments in research; the thrill of finally fitting
they’re not directly related to my research. Then, if I find disparate pieces together is tough to beat.
an interesting string of references in a paper I’m reading, One of the new first-year students in our department re-
I’ll follow where it leads. That’s how I found my way to cently asked me for advice on making it through graduate
ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

those decades-old papers. Chemistry also has a small but studies. I typically find that type of vague question tough to
vibrant blogging community, and sometimes a thoughtful answer succinctly, but this one was easy: Read widely and
post highlighting a recent paper will start me on one of my voraciously. Fortune doesn’t come every day, but when it
literature dives. If I find that many of these references come does, you will be prepared to make the most of it. ■
from the same source—Inorganic Chemistry, for example—
I’ll add it to the stable of journals that I follow. Julian G. West is a doctoral student at Princeton
Perhaps the bigger question is why I make the effort. University in New Jersey. Do you have an interesting
The short answer is that I read widely to prepare myself career story? Send it to SciCareerEditor@aaas.org.

1090 10 MARCH 2017 • VOL 355 ISSUE 6329 sciencemag.org SCIENCE

Published by AAAS
Fortune favors the well read
Julian G. West

Science 355 (6329), 1090.


DOI: 10.1126/science.355.6329.1090

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