12 Personal attributes of a successful researcher

12 Personal attributes of a successful researcher

What is your dream as a researcher? Finding a cure for a rare disease? Making an invention that creates history? Winning a Nobel? Now, as importantly, what do you think will get you there?

When we look at successful scientists down the ages, we find that there are some qualities that they all have in common; these are the attributes that both define them as a researcher and help them succeed in their field. Some attributes might be more pronounced in some researchers and some less so, but they are all present to some extent. Wouldn’t you want to know what these attributes are and which renowned researchers you share these with? Come, let's explore. 

Inquisitiveness

Go back to the time you were a child and dismantled a toy or ripped apart a figure to find out what lay inside or made the sound. Researchers carry that child-like inquisitiveness throughout their life. They are fascinated about various phenomena in the natural world and enjoy striving to know more about them. And for the truly inquisitive researcher, the search for knowledge and information never seems to stop. Apart from wanting to know more about their field, inquisitive researchers also seek to explore other fields, because you never know where the solution for a scientific problem could come from. To Isaac Newton, it came in an orchard, and to Archimedes, in a bathtub. A researcher never stops being inquisitive!

Thirst for knowledge

Coupled with insatiable inquisitiveness, successful researchers have an immense yearning to dive deep – to understand a problem, a concept, or a phenomenon from all perspectives. In fact, this is what helps them bring new questions and insights to the table. Perhaps this thirst originates from the feeling that we as humans really know so little about the world and how much more there is to learn.

Charles Darwin began the study of what would lead to his landmark theory of evolution at the age of 22. But he wasn’t satisfied with making only a few basic observations. So, he spent the next several decades satiating his need to gain more knowledge about the process of evolution across species. 28 years after he commenced his exploration, when he was 50, he finally deemed it fit to publish his pathbreaking book On the Origins of the Species.

Analytical ability

Analysis is about learning, observing, and then putting that learning and observation together into a meaningful conclusion. It’s about connecting the dots and seeing the big picture leading to the aha moment. Archimedes channeled all his previous knowledge and learning when he immersed himself into a bathtub that fortuitous day. For days, he had been musing over his king’s problem: how could he determine whether the gold the king had was real? When he immersed himself into the tub, he was able to at once analyze what caused the displacement of the water (the immersion of a weight into the water) and how he could use this to determine the authenticity of the gold (by submerging it in water). Aha indeed.

Innovativeness

Innovativeness is about looking at something with a new perspective or, as is often said, with a new pair of eyes. It is the springboard of many an invention and discovery. With Newton, it was looking at a falling apple – a mundane event by most people’s accounts – through the lens of gravity, leading him to formulate his three laws of motion. An innovative researcher knows that the next big invention or discovery can originate anywhere; they just need to look well enough. Chinese scientist Tu Youyou, who won the 2015 Nobel for Physiology or Medicine for her innovative therapy for malaria, found the answer not in something new age but in an ancient Chinese text on herbs.

Adaptability

If innovativeness is all about looking at something in a new way, adaptability is about how soon and how well you can align yourself with a new situation you are presented with. As a researcher, you may have to frequently come to grips with new challenges. It could be modifying your research focus to apply for a grant, moving to a new country to pursue an opportunity, or approaching your research problem in a wholly new way based on peer reviewer comments. Your adaptability could determine how well you perform as a researcher and also how successful you can be.

Zabta Khan Shinwari, current Chair of the Biotechnology Department at Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU) in Islamabad, Pakistan and erstwhile Secretary-General of the Pakistan Academy of Sciences (PAS), is quite the master at adaptability. Although he had a PhD in molecular systematics, based on his supervisor’s suggestion, he decided to explore the rapidly evolving field of biotechnology in the mid-90s. Later, as he explored the field, he realized that its ethical aspects were as important as the scientific discoveries, and so, decided to pursue bioethics, a decision that was to eventually lead to his winning the 2015 UNESCO Avicenna Prize for Ethics in Science. As an aside, isn’t it fascinating that he adjusted to the Japanese language and way of life on his way to completing his PhD from Kyoto University in a mere 2.5 years? But that is another story.

Focus

It is one thing to have an aim, and quite another to never lose sight of it. The difference is focus. This is what distinguishes successful researchers, feels Linqi Zhang, Chair of the Department of Basic Medical Sciences and Comprehensive Aids Research Center at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. He believes that it is single-mindedness that helps researchers concentrate on solving problems. He explains: “When [others] encounter a mountain too high, they will take a detour... The successful researcher will find the solution no matter how long that takes.”

Focus helps you continue looking at the bigger picture and the greater goal of your research – through all the false starts, dead ends, rejects, and revisions – because you know where you want to be at the end of it all.

Perseverance

If there is one quality that marks success in science (and in fact, in many other fields), it’s probably perseverance. The greatest scientific discoveries may take years, and taking a germ of an idea to its fruition takes perseverance through all those years. Perseverance is about never giving up and striving to overcome every obstacle on your research journey.

Marie Curie, who discovered radium and polonium, exhibited tremendous perseverance on the road to those double discoveries. In her youth, she had to endure immense prejudice and adversity as a young woman in Germany-occupied Poland. In her later years, she went through grave heartbreak when she lost her husband, Pierre, in an accident. Curie though remained undeterred through it all. Her perseverance powered her on to the rare feat of a double Nobel win.

Collaboration

When we look at the winners of the Nobel, the Lasker, or any major scientific award in recent years, one thing becomes clear: research is increasingly becoming a collaborative effort. Science is evolving: it is getting super-specialized and multi-disciplinary, and researchers are collaborating for various reasons such as accessing scientific expertise, pursuing new fields and problems, and getting published and cited more. Collaborative efforts can also help resolve global challenges such as climate change or pandemics, as they necessitate many heads drawn from diverse fields to come up with solutions. This evolution is also reflected in the growing number of multiauthor papers stemming from international collaborations. Collaboration clearly is the way forward.

Communication

Great researchers need to be great communicators. You need to communicate with editors, reviewers, co-authors, and funders at the very least. Through research papers, you need to be able to effectively communicate your research with readers. A compelling abstract can pique interest in your paper, leading to more readers and eventually to increased citations. A well-constructed grant proposal leads to a greater chance of consideration and perhaps even an approval. Apart from this, to make science accessible to people both within and outside the scientific community, you also need to adopt different styles of communication. At conferences, you need to know how to present your research to an informed audience. At the other end, you need to communicate your research in a more accessible manner to press reporters and lay people.

Today, you have several channels of communication at your disposal to help take your research far beyond your doorstep. So, you can choose what works for you: mixed-media formats such as blogs and videos, more visual forms such as infographics and graphic abstracts, or a purely aural form such as podcasts.

Foresightedness

Scientists are able to make inventions and discoveries because they are able to first see the potential or need for them. Stanley Whittingham, John Goodenough, and Akira Yoshino, who won the 2019 Nobel in Chemistry, first saw the need for their invention in the global oil crisis of the 70s: the crisis clearly pointed to the need for a future that is less dependent on fossil fuels. After 30 years and numerous incremental developments, they gave the world the lithium-ion battery, which now powers devices ranging from computers to cars. Foresightedness is about seeing far and then striving to bring that vision to reality.

Integrity

Integrity is one of the pillars of science. It is said that great science is built by standing on the shoulders of giants. However, if those shoulders lack integrity, there remains little hope for advancement. Researchers who are passionate about their field, deeply committed to their work, and also understand the potential impact they can create are the ones who are driven by integrity. They uphold best ethical practices at all times, even in highly competitive situations. And thereby, also show the way for the others.

Passion

Passion lies at the heart of great research – and great researchers. Despite the setbacks and challenges, their passion to dig deeper, to make a difference to the field or the society at large, keeps researchers zealous.

It’s what kept Thomas Edison motivated despite the multiple failures before he invented the lightbulb. It kept Curie striving through adversities and calamities. It had Darwin diving deeper and deeper into the study of evolution for close to 30 years. It had Youyou going back 1,600 years in search of a remedy.

So, keep walking on the path that brings you closer to achieving your goals. And keep growing along the way.

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