Stick to what you’re good at (a tribute to Lelio Orci)

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Lelio Orci (University of Geneva)

Lelio Orci’s working life shows how a singular talent can be leveraged to maximal success.

Lelio Orci died on 22nd October 2019. While perhaps not carrying universal name recognition, he was a legendary figure in cell biology, first through his studies on glucagon- and insulin-secreting cells of the pancreas, and later as a key contributor to the dominant “EM + biochemistry” paradigm for membrane trafficking research from the 60s through to the 90s. His career also offers a pointer for how individual scientists should structure their work lives.

The great thing about science is that you cannot come in at the top – everyone starts at the bottom and has to go through all the stages in order to attain seniority. And as a scientist works through those stages, they become specialised. Whether it’s in a technique, an organism, or a conceptual field, individual scientists gradually acquire a unique constellation of first-hand experiences and absorb a background of extant knowledge that places them in a highly refined niche.

Techniques are the most obvious and easily understood example of specialisation. A person learns a particular technique (such as EM), and will then be deferred to in this area proportionally to their perceived level of mastery.

Of course, the level of sophistication in any given technique will increase over time, and sometimes dramatically so. Fluorescence microscopy has gone from being part of every generalist cell biologist’s toolkit to a highly refined and variegated field whose specialist practitioners tend nowadays to have backgrounds in physics or computer science rather than biology. Whether a scientist’s expertise is technical, organismal, or conceptual, it will always be incumbent on them to keep up to date with recent advances in that specialisation, otherwise their expert status will be lost.

To a young scientist, this requirement – obtaining and maintaining a level of expertise – can be daunting. For technical specialists, the investment of time required to fully master a highly sophisticated methodology is not trivial, and there’s always the question of whether it’s possible to do anything but that one technique or if truly mastering it requires sacrificing all other practical interests. There does remain the career parachute of taking a facility position (something organism and concept specialists invariably envy), but that move is usually accompanied by a considerable or complete loss of academic freedom – the scientists in facilities essentially provide a service, and even if time is allocated for conducting personal research it’s unlikely to be enough to make sufficient progress towards a faculty post.

Technique non-specialists tend to find themselves in a bit of a bind too. Their focus on an organism or concept makes it easier to carve out some intellectual real estate and thereby define the extent of their academic freedom, but they still need to use specialist techniques, and if they don’t understand those techniques properly then they can hardly expect to deploy a range of them to best effect, or without error. 

A reflex response in such situations – and a common mistake of many junior group leaders – is to try to get to grips with as many different specialisations as possible. Consequently, it’s remarkably easy to waste considerable time trying to learn or gain familiarity with new skills, organisms, or subject areas that you’re unlikely to ever become an expert in. It might be out of a desire to learn new things practically for possible research advantage, or it might be the entirely laudable and understandable wish to thoroughly understand how the techniques used within your group actually work, but either way it’s a misplaced reaction to the new responsibilities suddenly acquired in this more senior position. 

The problem is that you won’t have time to become an expert in everything, and you may be best off thinking about what it is that you do that’s really exceptional and then maximising that instead. Stop fretting about whether you can do every technique as least as well as anybody else in the group, and decide what it is that you do best.

It’s important to note too that that thing may not necessarily be a “hard” skill such as a particular technique or analytical tool, but might also be a soft skill. Some people are geniuses are mentoring and they will probably have more success devoting time to that rather than trying to do too much with their own hands. 

Lelio Orci provides an outstanding example of such focus. An exceptional microscopist, his personal contribution with his later collaborators was solely to image specimens. His research group was set up to receive their many samples, which were processed by technicians, cut into sections, stained and labelled as appropriate, and then put into the microscope for him to examine. In fact he had several microscopes, so that he could go from one to the next without wasting time. 

The advantages of such a setup are clear – high throughput, and a leveraging of his real skill, which was his gift of observation and ability to interpret the images. Orci offers an template paradigm for how to arrange a work environment in such a way as to maximise the application of an individual’s expert skill.

Let that be your template, and organise your time to leverage your real talents, so that you don’t haemorrhage hours on things that could better be done by others. Don’t try to master everything; you need to be able to understand what’s going on so that you can troubleshoot things, or at the very least identify people you trust who can do this for you, but you should make sure that what you spend the bulk of your time doing is what you’re good at, instead of losing time learning things that others already do better. 

Ultimately, such a philosophy also highlights the value of collaboration. Collaboration is a way of outsourcing expertise – different assays can be done by different experts. Collaboration also conceptually underpins the core facility paradigm, where experts are available for specialist techniques and research groups are just providing samples and experimentally-varied conditions. But that logic can be taken further. In theory, even a single experiment – as Orci’s setup shows – can be broken up into parts in which different people individually do the things they’re good at. 

Occam’s razor posits that the best explanation makes the fewest assumptions, “Orci’s razor”, if you will, shows that the best use of time is the one that makes the fewest deviations from the sharpest point.

Acknowledgement: this posting was suggested by Graham Warren (LMCB).

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