Let the Data Speak

Posted on January 17, 2008

Christopher M. Ryan (bio) suggests that close participation in the research process yields not just experience, but practical, valuable data.


I do have a little bit of advice to give, and it has to do with keeping your mind open and letting the data speak. Because actually none of the hypotheses that I've generated have ever turned out the way I expected, but I've managed over the years to collect an enormous amount of data and to look at the data. And the data sometimes reveals very, very interesting things.

For example when we started doing this research we just collected a large group of diabetic kids that nobody else was studying, and we wanted to get a group of non-diabetic kids. And so we asked our diabetic kids to bring a friend in or a family member, and we looked at the data. We started. I used to actually do the analyses myself. I would trudge out here in the snow on Saturdays and do evaluations, and after the first year I thought, "You know there's nothing here." The diabetic kids were performing like the non-diabetic kids.

And one day I found a child who was quite impaired. And after doing the assessment I talked with mom, and she said, "Well my daughter developed diabetes in the first several months of life," which is very unusual. A couple of weeks later, I found a second child who was somewhat impaired. That child had developed diabetes within the first couple of years of life. We then went back and stratified our sample and said, "Does having diabetes early in life increase the individual's risk to subsequently develop cognitive problems?"

We went back; we did these analyses. They were completely unplanned. And in fact we found that there was a subgroup of individuals who were quite impaired. That was the beginning in 1981-82 of what's turned out to be an extraordinarily robust phenomenon. So having my mind open and also observing people's behavior very carefully is something that young investigators need to do.

And so if you asked me what's one of the major changes I see today with young investigators is that they often don't even do their own interactions with the research subjects. They have a paid staff who interacts with the research subjects. I used to do all of my own evaluations. It was very, very, very informative. That I think is something we need to get back to, that hands-on experience, at least for a period of time.

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Excerpted from interview with researcher at the 2007 Career Development Institute for Bipolar Disorder in Pittsburgh, PA.


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