Tuesday, October 5, 2010

In search of great ideas

Not surprisingly, I'm still on the hunt for a great thesis topic. My advisor and I have been meeting weekly, and while he says that I've got a couple of established projects that could become solid PhD theses, it's early enough yet in my graduate experience that I can still spend time challenging myself in search of a super-shiny topic. So we've been putting a good bit of thought into what makes particular topics time appropriate, influential, etc, such that they result in classic, highly cited papers. Good things to think about, but not always entirely obvious.

The last week or so was dubbed ' 70's week ', and we've been hitting up a bunch of classic papers from the 70's. Some of them are terrible, some of them are pretty neat. Mostly what I've been struck by however, is the realization that a lot of the topics that turn up in weekly lab meetings and paper discussions and over lunch at the cafeteria - they're not really 'new' hot topics to the extent that I usually consider them. I've been surprised by just how much these 'old' papers are really discussing the same ideas that we still wrestle with today in ecology and evolution. Sure their discussions tend to be a little more qualitative and verbal than quantitative, and they aren't using all of the powerful new methods and resources that have been developed more recently. But a lot of the ideas are there.

Maybe I shouldn't be so surprised - lots of smart people have been (and are) ecologists. Wading into the literature though has been a good experience. I am both comforted and somewhat stymied by these realizations though - on the one hand, it's good to realize that even though a lot of the really foundational ideas in our discipline have been thought out and written about for decades, people are still making a living and doing good work to flesh out these ideas without having to come up with paradigm shaking new concepts. On the other hand, while I'm challenging myself to try to come up with a super shiny new idea, it's intimidating to realize how much has already been though out/discovered, and the extent to which most of what is done these days is 'just' filling in the blanks.

Ok, back to the late 70's....