By Gwen Schanker, editorial columnist
So far in my education, my understanding of what it means to be a scientist has been a little fuzzy. However, with the combination of doing research the past two semesters and working at my current co-op in communications at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), I’ve realized that scientists are simply trying to answer questions no one knows the answer to. They’re exploring unknown realms and finding solutions to questions most people haven’t even thought to ask – which is pretty awesome.
Both the fundamental struggle and the primary motivation in science, though, is that every answer brings a new set of questions. This is especially true when you consider the evolution of scientific technology: Every door opened by technology has a lot of unknowns behind it, which likely require additional resources to answer. Scientists need new technology to answer unknown questions, and those who develop the technology need new questions to know how to move forward; researchers are guided by technology, yet they are guides for that technology. This seems like a frustrating back-and-forth for everyone involved, but it’s a key part of what makes scientific progress so exciting.
Research at WHOI is concentrated in oceanography. Much of what happens underwater has only recently been revealed through technology, allowing scientists to ask questions about marine life that they’ve never been able to before. As Camrin Braun, a doctoral student in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-WHOI joint program in biological oceanography, said, “Human observation is limited to this tiny sliver of the water, and beyond that we don’t know what’s happening.”
Tagging and tracking technology from the past couple of decades has allowed Braun and his colleagues to learn that sharks and devil rays, whose bodies are mainly designed for surface dwelling, sometimes dive more than 1,000 meters below the surface. This raises the question of what motivates the animals to dive so deep (are they pursuing an unknown food source?), which will require additional, advanced tagging technology to answer. As the tags Braun uses become smaller and easier to deploy, he is slowly learning more about how the animals behave in three dimensions, an important step in understanding their motivation for diving.
Technology invites new questions not only in science, but also across a broad range of other fields. My mom, Jenny Schanker, works for the Michigan Community College Association to determine how colleges can increase their student success, measured by retention through graduation. Her work revolves around the basic question of how best to keep college students on track, but technological developments invite more specific questions. Using new auditing technology, my mom and her colleagues can see that many students are getting off track by taking courses that don’t count. This led them to ask why students digress from their curriculum, and whether there is additional technology that might help the students better monitor their progress. My mom is now working with a team of developers to update information systems in a way that will both improve student success and bring up additional questions about it.
In short, developing new technology both allows old questions to be answered and invites new questions, which in turn require newly developed technology to answer, raising new questions, and so on. This is a frustrating but exciting phenomenon that applies to all areas of science and beyond. It also creates an intersection between scientific and technological development. By applying the tools in a meaningful way, scientists can allow for future progress in both their own field and that of technology.