Thursday, May 09, 2013

Research Methodology - The Feynman, Katz and Hamming Way

I recently gave two lectures as part of the Research Methodology course at IIT Jodhpur. This is a mandatory course for the post-graduate students in order to explain them how to do high quality research. I started off with a famous article by Richard Feynman called "Cargo Cult Science". This was his famous speech delivered at the California Institute of Technology. Feynman talks about scientific integrity while doing research. He clearly explains how to do proper scientific research and how to recognize pseudo-science so that we do not make fool of ourselves while doing research. This article is a must read for any researcher who aspires to carry out very high quality work for his/her thesis.

I have always been fascinated by experimental neuroscience ever since I learned the basics from my MTech advisor Prof. Rohit Manchanda at IIT Bombay. The most important discovery of experimental neuroscience was the one made by Bernard Katz and his colleagues in understanding the functioning of single synapse of a neuro-muscular junction (NMJ). These pioneering studies were carried out primarily in the 1960s and 1970s. Katz was conferred the Nobel prize in 1970 for his experimental discovery of the quantal neurotransmitter release in a NMJ. The Nobel lecture of Bernard Katz is available online.

I had missed the references of the work of Katz which I primarily learned from one of his earlier books called "Nerve, Muscle and the Synapse". I had a hard copy of that book which I lost over time. I was fortunate enough find the complete details of this amazing work in another brilliant neuroscience book called "From Neuron to Brain" (5th Edition) by G. Nicholls and others. This book drew my attention towards the work of Katz and others in NMJ of a frog.

Katz and his colleagues discovered the quantal release of neurotransmitters at the NMJ and proved that the release can be modeled using a Poisson distribution. Since the number of synaptic vesicles are very large and only a tiny fraction of them get released with each depolarization and Calcium in flux, the Poisson distribution models the entire phenomenon perfectly. I tried to illustrate this work as a case study as to how to do inter-disciplinary research in science. The work of Katz involves understanding of the basic electrical engineering, chemistry, and a bit of statistics.

Then, I focused on the principles behind high quality applied research and how to make fundamental contributions to engineering and technology. My last part of the lecture was derived from the famous article by Richard Hamming, "You and Your Research". Hamming is famous for his fundamental contributions to the area of communication systems such as Hamming codes, Hamming distance, and Hamming window. He was one of the pioneers in the field of communication and his works are found in all standard textbooks on Signal Processing, Communication, and Error Detection Codes. His book on numerical analysis is a classic one. I found his suggestions on research to be the best suited for engineering students.

The top ten rules emphasized by Hamming in his lecture was published by the journal Computational Biology. I found these ten rules simple to teach in the classroom. The successive articles in the same journal contained more tips for the students at various stages of their research career and the collection can be accessed as Ten Simple Rules collection. I found the rules for best research by Hamming, successful collaboration, and graduate students to be highly relevant for the course audience and covered them in my lecture. I am sure that these articles would be indispensable for any student who aspires to do high quality research.

The Research Methodology course page I created contains all these links. I plan to add more contents to this page in future.