Doing research and the unexpected
Curiosity and deep interest in a topic drive research. My research is no exception to that rule. Could I have foreseen how my career would develop? For example, I could have finished my school, gone to the university and study dentistry, and then could have been a dentist with a more than proper income for the rest of my life. As a boy I was determined to become a farmer. I also dreamt of being an explorer of unknown land, a famous architect, or astronomer, and make discoveries at the frontiers of physics. What would I have been without such dreams? Life is about opportunities: some you get, some you don’t, some you don’t see, and some don’t concert with ones (limited) capacities.
What happened since? I studied astronomy, which was great for two years, until I had to admit that the advanced courses became too highly theoretical. Time for plan B. Medical physics was the opportunity I came across, which brought me a PhD.
“I was a certified researcher now! Ready for ..?”
Running through the newspaper, during an intermezzo in writing the last chapter of my PhD thesis, I came across this odd vacancy in Groningen – Psychology? Children? Developmental disorders? I hardly knew anything about it. But the keywords experimental, movement disorder and EEG raised my interest. Why not apply? They took me on, even though I forgot to change trains in Amersfoort on my way to Groningen. This was 1983.
The Department of Psychology was both more interesting than I had expected as well as a disaster. Back then, some members of the staff had never published a research paper and I remember seeing a request to attend a conference on some vague alternative treatment, including a personal training session of walking through burning coal. At the same time I worked in a newly established well-motivated research group and learned so much about how to study the fuzzy topic of psychology as opposed to the clear cut theoretically founded physics I was trained in. I discovered that psychologists have developed lousy theories and great experiments using many of the techniques developed in physics and medical research.
“None of these steps in my career I had expected or planned.”
But surely, once you have chosen your topic, in my case motor development and its disorders, you pursue it? Yes, I did. However, has this ruled out the unexpected? No! One midnight on New Year’s eve the police called that the lab’s burglar alarm had been activated and I should come and check if anything was missing. I jumped out of bed onto my bicycle and found that none of the expensive equipment was missing. But back at home I suddenly realized that years of work might have disappeared if the set of hard disks with all the computer programs and data and the backup tapes had been stolen. Today, I trust that the backups of our data and email servers are stored in a separate and real safe place.
“What about unexpected main results of a study?”
How to deal with that? One of my PhD students ran a longitudinal study to explore how the growth spurt in puberty would temporarily hinder the development of motor skills in clumsy boys. After 3 years of data collection, against our prediction, it turned out that most clumsy boys improved their motor skills more than controls during the growth spurt. Fortunately, after much thought, we came up with a plausible explanation: the maturation of the nervous system of these boys was speeded up during puberty. Although the whole research was on boys, guess what a newspaper signaled: Girls not affected by growth spurt!
And the unexpected continues: A few years later I happened to get involved in a real interesting project on lateralization for which we received funding from the NWO, the Netherland Organisation for Scientific Research. While preparing the grant proposal we had the wild idea to study handedness and evolutionary selection in a pre-industrial society. My colleague in the Biology department knew a German anthropologist who was willing to introduce us to the Eipo tribe in the heart of New Guinea. As one of the PhD students unexpectedly had to withdraw, I jumped in. Nine months later I had learned Bahasa Indonesia and found myself living between these friendly people to collect data by means of interviews, observation, and simple measurements of handedness. No electricity, plenty of fresh vegetables, a place to sleep, and the most reliable recording system ever developed: paper and pencil.
“As a boy I dreamt to become an explorer; now it turns out I have been one my whole life. Wonderful and… unexpected.”
Geuze, R.H., Schaafsma, S.M., Lust, J.M., Bouma, A., Schiefenhövel, W., & Groothuis, A.G.G. (2012). Plasticity of lateralization: schooling predicts hand preference but not hand skill asymmetry in a non-industrial society. Neuropsychologia, 50, 612-620. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2011.12.017
Schaafsma, S.M., Geuze, R.H., Lust, J.M., Schiefenhövel, W., & Groothuis, T.G.G. (2013). The relation between handedness indices and reproductive success in a non-industrial society. PLoS ONE, 8(5), e63114, 1-10. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0063114
Schaafsma, S.M., Geuze, R.H., Riedstra, B., Schiefenhövel, W., Bouma, A. & Groothuis, A.G.G. (2012). Handedness in a pre-industrial society challenges the fighting hypothesis as an evolutionary explanation of left-handedness. Evolution and Human Behavior, 33, 94-99. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumanbehav.2011.06.001