Sunday, February 6, 2011

Research as a Sport

With the Super Bowl game later today in Dallas (although the Patriots won't be there, the Steelers and the Packers will) I thought it appropriate to comment on sports and, in particular, on research, which is something that I love (I'm a fan of multiple sports and it helps that I teach at the Isenberg School, which also houses the outstanding Mark H. McCormack Sports Management Department).

I just finished writing a research paper with a co-author that I have been laboring over with passion and it has certainly helped that we have had so many snow days in the past several weeks, which have allowed me to really focus on completing the paper.

Writing a research paper, one has to focus on the goal -- to ask, first, the correct and interesting questions, and then to solve the problem/puzzle that will answer the question(s). When everything falls into place -- the theory, the solution procedure, and the data-based application -- one often experiences the euphoric feeling (which probably is what players and their coaches feel when a team wins a major playoff or the Super Bowl).

Research requires strategizing (something that coaches and sports teams certainly understand and devote a great deal of time to), which involves not only what problems to work on, but also where to publish. It may also involve with whom to collaborate (think of the energy and funds expended in getting the right football lineup together or baseball team).

Research requires intense discipline as does outstanding performance in sports. It very often requires team-work, since some of the most important and relevant research being done today is multidisciplinary (and that is another reason that I love working in my discipline since it relates to so many fascinating problems). Research takes time (sometimes it takes many years to crack a problem and in order to do it well one has to get the education and training for it) and it helps if one has the stamina for it. Just think of all those little leaguers, children soccer players, figure skaters, and even peewee football players, who train over years.

Success in research can be measured in the personal satisfaction that one gets from doing a great piece of research, which sportsmen and women also feel through their outstanding, record-breaking performances. It is also measured by specific achievements -- from papers published, books written, invitations garnered to speak and to present one's work, and ultimately, perhaps, even awards for one's research. Of course, for more junior faculty, outstanding research is recognized by promotion and tenure, which should provide the foundation for additional great research (but, sadly, sometimes this does not happen for various reasons).

Academic research and even industrial research involve competition (and professional sports thrive on this). Which team will be the first to decipher the genetic code of a species? Which country will win the next World Cup? Who will win the Super Bowl tonight (frankly, I am looking forward to the half-time show)?

Star researchers also often get recruited by other universities or research institutes just like top players do but by other sports teams.

And who cheers one on when it comes to research (and sports)?! There are fans of researchers as there are sports fans. The more citations that one's work gets (and, hopefully, these are positive citations) the more recognized the work becomes and the research team. Successful researchers, typically, get to travel a lot as do various sports figures, while competing, and even later in their careers as role models, motivational speakers, media stars, celebrities, etc.

Successful research may also result in innovations that form the foundation for companies and result in outstanding products or services that generate financial compensation. Sports certainly generate, in some cases, exorbitant income for certain players.

And, like sports figures who get elected to their sport Halls of Fame, top researchers (and obviously, there are politics everywhere) get elected to the National Academies and may even be recognized with a Nobel prize, the MVP of research!

Research does not have to stop if one continues to have the passion, the energy, and the discipline for it (being healthy helps, too, I might add, and having/making the time for intense research). Just like sports, where activities such as Senior Games continue to draw competitors, even having an over 80 age class in some sports, one does not have to stop, but having a supportive work and family environment certainly helps.

Of course, not everyone wins the Super Bowl or the World Cup, but just doing one's best, for as long as one can, is rewarding in itself! And remember, great coaching is also essential as is outstanding, devoted teaching and mentoring of the next generation of researchers and athletes!