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  1. #1

    Let's talk about research!

    Well, I'd like to continue a discussion I was having with usafSHADOWusaf (buddy, we gotta get you a nickname going here!) about research, peeling off from the Philosophy thread. That's not all that made me want to make this thread, though. When I was looking for a paper tonight that I had worked on before graduating, I found a lot of hate (expected, really) on the internet about the research my particular lab did. Having worked there extensively for all four years of my undergrad career, the things they were saying showed that they had absolutely no clue what actually went on in our research lab, or any for that matter. Our lab was subject to far more scrutiny than many others because we happened to be the home of a particularly famous animal. It came with the territory.

    So, I have a main goal for this thread: to discuss the realities and challenges of research in all levels, from personal experiments to the high levels of academia, where one is in a never ending fight for grants and money. I'll get the ball rolling with what I did during my time, and why I'm concerned by what I read.

    Just as a quick overview, my lab work revolved around researching animal behavior and intelligence in parrots, through a variety of experiments and trials in a consistently controlled setting. Our goal was to establish the diversity of intelligence that exists within other species and among other things, most notably using our research in application to teaching methods for those on the Autism spectrum. Issues with funding, however, never allowed things to be as ideal as they could have been; we worked with what we got, and our PI worked tirelessly to always keep us afloat. Research issues with animals is an incredibly touchy subject, and what I saw the most of online were completely black and white views in regards to the philosophies behind using them. They had assumptions about our particular lab that were unbelievably untrue, and painted visions of dark, decrepit Hollywood laboratory scenes where dim lights flickered ominously while screams echoed faintly off the walls. Not true.

    One thing people who haven't done research seem to not get is that, in many cases, most of the time it's absolutely freakin' boring. There's way more downtime or menial tasks than you could shake a stick at. If our birds didn't want to "work", they didn't work. There was nothing forced about what they were doing. They were certainly stressed at many times, but these were tradeoffs; they never had to worry about predation or finding food, and had more company and attention than most domestic birds ever get. And I should just state, we were absolutely a no-kill research lab. These birds were our responsibility for life. We talked with them through our work, we let them watch Netflix on the computer or bounce around to all kinds of music, or wander around to explore with a supervised eye. They were research experiments, yes, but they were also treated as animals that we cared about.

    But, the morality of keeping intelligent animals inside a lab is one that I had to deal with personally, as I experienced the highs and lows of working there. I loved bonding with the birds, and I had to really earn their trust. It wasn't perfect. I could understand where people may think keeping animals for research is cruel, but where does one draw the line when balancing the costs and the benefits? How often do you hear or care about the countless mice killed every day in research labs across the country, to examine their brains or just to be tested on? Researchers obviously tend to have a very utilitarian view, while those on the outside are morally opposed on all grounds. There's a hell of a lot of grey middle ground, and it can vary significantly depending on the particular lab. Heck, even in our lab complex, we were disliked by other labs because our research was too "soft."

    I don't expect these questions to be answered here, or anywhere really. I am merely trying to present you with some meaningful questions that we often faced, both as a collective lab and as individual researchers. Naturally, this is not the case for all or even many labs, so I'm really curious to hear about what other people do/did, and the challenges they faced.

    Feel free to ask any questions, of course!
    Last edited by Rory; 02-04-2014 at 06:06 AM. Reason: Tidying up.

  2. #2
    Retired Staff piņardilla's Avatar

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  3. #3
    Quote Originally Posted by piņardilla View Post
    I don't (yet) work in a research lab, so I don't have any experiences to contribute. Though I've never heard of a researcher that didn't regard the animals in the lab with respect, even if they had to be culled in the process of the study.

    A statue erected by scientists in Novosibirsk, Russia to honor and express gratitude to all the animals sacrificed for scientific progress.
    That's an awesome picture, I am truly glad to see that the animals are shown respect in such a way. Thank you for sharing that. Unfortunately my experiences aren't as entirely good, talking with students/friends who worked in the other labs involving mice. Some seemed a little too into their job, where they'd recount some particularly disturbing stories about newborn mice being taken away with the cord still attached and the mother biting at them, and accidentally sending the babies flying, all with a thinly veiled glee. Some were just desensitized and had no opinion, but certainly there were plenty who had respect, thankfully. I respect the people who can do the job, but I could never personally get involved. Just don't have the stomach for it.

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    Retired Staff piņardilla's Avatar

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    Quote Originally Posted by Rory View Post
    That's an awesome picture, I am truly glad to see that the animals are shown respect in such a way. Thank you for sharing that. Unfortunately my experiences aren't as entirely good, talking with students/friends who worked in the other labs involving mice. Some seemed a little too into their job, where they'd recount some particularly disturbing stories about newborn mice being taken away with the cord still attached and the mother biting at them, and accidentally sending the babies flying, all with a thinly veiled glee. Some were just desensitized and had no opinion, but certainly there were plenty who had respect, thankfully. I respect the people who can do the job, but I could never personally get involved. Just don't have the stomach for it.
    I would think (hope? :x) that those students would be a bit more mature before they actually graduated and got real jobs in a research lab, or they wouldn't get very far.

    I'm glad you liked the picture. :3 Last I heard, they were hoping to erect more statues to different common lab animals with plaques detailing the discoveries they contributed to.
         
       
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    Retired Staff piņardilla's Avatar

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    Yeah... I dunno if I could do monkey research. :\

    Drosophila melanogaster probably deserves a statue too, though somehow I think a statue of a fruit fly would be less than popular.
         
       
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  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by piņardilla View Post
    Yeah... I dunno if I could do monkey research. :\

    Drosophila melanogaster probably deserves a statue too, though somehow I think a statue of a fruit fly would be less than popular.
    Oh gosh, fruit flies, how could I forget those? When the weather wasn't nice, I'd walk through other parts of the science complex, and there was this one hallway... oh man. Fruit fly labs right across from the autoclaves. That's a smell you never forget.

  8. #8
    Reminds me of the trade behavior experiments carried out with monkeys. Economists referred to them dismissively as "fuzzy monkey experiments" as the monkeys are fuzzy but also because they're usually rife with experimental errors, as I would imagine most behavior experiments with animals are. Nonetheless there've been more fuzzy monkey experiments because it gets funding and looks good for the press.
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    Junior usafSHADOWusaf's Avatar
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    "Shadow" or "Shade" are a few I've gone by, so feel free to use them or make one up yourself XD.

    As for your research, that is quite the subject to investigate and I don't think I'd have the patience to deal with the spontaneity of animals on a small research budget/grant. The positive to being a physics undergraduate is that I only have to deal with my own delays, whether due to my incompetence or my own interference. However, the downside is that the physics department here is small, and our main research is led by an arse for a professor (Dr. Kunal Das; as arrogant and malicious as they come). He is unfortunately my college advisor, and when I first met the man, he said that I would never get a research position because I didn't have a 4.0 (I had a 3.84 with one "B" in psychology; unrelated to my field in every way). So, since my degree centers around concepts of less material and more idea, I just did my own thing. Right now, I'm flip-flopping between the investigation into normative ethical theory and an application of wavefunctions in defining gravitational structure (hopefully will accurately predict dark matter distribution; has ties to the Many World Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics). The former is much more developed than the latter, and I am already starting a 1st draft.

    Since we are on the matter of ethics, Rory, how has your research structured your ethical beliefs? Is it a set structure, or have you not settled on a general concept as of yet?

  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by TeenageAngst View Post
    Reminds me of the trade behavior experiments carried out with monkeys. Economists referred to them dismissively as "fuzzy monkey experiments" as the monkeys are fuzzy but also because they're usually rife with experimental errors, as I would imagine most behavior experiments with animals are. Nonetheless there've been more fuzzy monkey experiments because it gets funding and looks good for the press.
    You're more or less correct. We have instances of pretty solid statistical significance in our research, but as I said above, there are so many little external factors that can contribute to an experiment's invalidity, especially with animals. Primates always get the money, though.

    Quote Originally Posted by usafSHADOWusaf View Post
    "Shadow" or "Shade" are a few I've gone by, so feel free to use them or make one up yourself XD.

    As for your research, that is quite the subject to investigate and I don't think I'd have the patience to deal with the spontaneity of animals on a small research budget/grant. The positive to being a physics undergraduate is that I only have to deal with my own delays, whether due to my incompetence or my own interference. However, the downside is that the physics department here is small, and our main research is led by an arse for a professor (Dr. Kunal Das; as arrogant and malicious as they come). He is unfortunately my college advisor, and when I first met the man, he said that I would never get a research position because I didn't have a 4.0 (I had a 3.84 with one "B" in psychology; unrelated to my field in every way). So, since my degree centers around concepts of less material and more idea, I just did my own thing. Right now, I'm flip-flopping between the investigation into normative ethical theory and an application of wavefunctions in defining gravitational structure (hopefully will accurately predict dark matter distribution; has ties to the Many World Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics). The former is much more developed than the latter, and I am already starting a 1st draft.

    Since we are on the matter of ethics, Rory, how has your research structured your ethical beliefs? Is it a set structure, or have you not settled on a general concept as of yet?

    Alright, we'll go with Shadow. Man, sometimes I thought I didn't have the patience even if we had had a bigger budget and operation. -_- That is a double-edged sword to sciences like Physics, for sure. As the Physics dept. chair told me in an office hours session once, there's a distinct and clear pecking order of "intelligence" in his department of which everything revolves around. Not a department I'd ever want to be a part of, personally! Also, sometimes I'm glad I went to school where I did; our university was very focused on providing undergraduates with the opportunity to do real research if we felt so inclined, with little in the way of hard barriers. Both projects sound fascinating! I can't lay claim to much knowledge of either, but I'm always willing to learn.

    As for your question... I probably can't answer it in hard philosophical language, so I'll do my best. I should mention that I've also trained a variety of other animals with varying levels of intelligence, so my views aren't too one-dimensional. It's not set, yet, not at all. My perspective of the world is still expanding, so I feel like I'd be stupid to keep my mind closed off based on the little that I know now.

    One day, I was doing a public presentation for a ton of people at an aquarium I was working with, and afterwards I had some people come up to me with questions. I was told to expect this, but was never actually prepared for it: the questions of, do you think these animals are happy, and are you treating them humanely? Or, in layman's terms, "Don't you think their enclosure is kinda small?" I calmly told them that we not only met the AZA's requirements for enclosure space based upon the number of animals we had, but actually exceeded it. Yeah, it wasn't the ocean, but there's a trade-off in there being a lack of predation and consistent food. Obviously they weren't buying it; they came asking the question simply to throw down jagged spears of justice unto me from their moral high ground.

    I guess my current beliefs have a bit of utilitarian flavor to them, in that if there's benefit to be had by keeping some individuals in a restricted space, then that is what must be done. No matter if I was working with marine mammals, birds, or even just small reptiles, it begins by coming down to two black & white options: 1, live free with the constant fear of predation (and/or poaching) and a lack of consistent food, or 2, live trapped with all of your base needs met. With those used as a base to work with, it's pretty clear that the actual answer is far more complex, because not all animal caretakers treat their animals with respect. I won't spit on SeaWorld because of this, where they are used for nothing more than entertainment. What value do we attach to freedom? What value does an animal attach to freedom, if any at all, because isn't it silly to ascribe our values to other people, let alone other species? Is their fear of being eaten worse than the boredom of swimming around the same enclosure? How do we truly quantify any of that?

    I don't have any exact answers to the above questions, only my subjective way of measuring benefits. When you come face to face with animals you'd probably never see, it culls fascination in a lot of people, enough to become cognizant of the problems that exist outside their day to day life. That is beneficial to their species as a whole, even at the sacrifice of personal freedom. Sometimes, the animals you see at such places are rescued from the wild, where they were sure to die otherwise; would they rather have died, than to have been loved and taken care of for many more years? Many times, the animals are simply born in captivity and have no clue otherwise, forming deep attachments to the humans around them. Our research lab? The animals were bred in captivity. Just yanking a healthy animal out of the wild, however, is something I do not agree with unless it's under dire circumstances, like inevitable extinction or imminent death due to unnatural injuries. Sometimes, these animals get released back when healthy, at least.

    Then again, if I was put into a small house and told to live my life out there for the benefit of other humans, I'd probably tell them to piss off lol (mostly just based on what I know of other people). Others might love that opportunity; animals are as much individuals as we are, without the corporate branding. The more I researched, the more I realized that I knew next to nothing. If I see pain or anxiety in an animal, it upsets me. It upset me when I saw it in the lab sometimes, although I usually understood whatever environmental factor was causing it (the bird hated the sight of anything significantly bigger than him, outside of humans). Unfortunately, pain and anxiety are a part of life; it always has been, and it always will be. Even if all of someone's needs are met, there are countless external or even internal factors that could still cause them anxiety.

    I've probably rambled and just gone in circles here, putting out some of my tangled thoughts. Maybe you could direct me from this point, because I could easily keep writing for the rest of the night about my experiences and thoughts over the years. So as I said, I'm still trying to figure it all out, let alone express it coherently. At the end of my research tenure, I started to no longer agree with the lab's methods, and to be frank I'm still trying to figure out exactly why. I was actually hoping our PI would retire, but they added another bird instead, which is highly irresponsible because... well, I really can't go into that here. Let's just say I did not agree, and the timing happened to coincide with my graduation.

 

 

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