What I didn’t realize as an undergraduate student is that the theory in a textbook isn’t necessarily the only one out there. Take evolution as an example. Darwin didn’t invent the concept of evolution; he proposed the theory of natural selection to explain evolution. Lamarck had a different theory to explain essentially the same observations. Nowadays, our ideas about evolution are quite different from Darwin’s original; they have changed over time as we learn more about biology and genetics.
There have also been several theories about how the immune system works. The main concept underpinning modern immunology is that the immune system is able to recognize an invader causing infectious disease and attack it, while avoiding damage to our own tissues. This is called Self – Non-self discrimination. Of course, like natural selection, the theory has been updated over time to better reflect incoming information (our immune system doesn’t kill all the bacteria in our digestive tract, for example, even though they are technically “non-self”) but the basic premise remains the same.
Competing theories don’t just exist in history books – they are alive and thriving (or not) right now. In the case of immunology, they don’t get much press. But they’re out there. And I care about them because my research is discovery-driven and exploratory. Unlike most PhDs in the sciences, which are hypothesis-driven, I don’t have a specific idea to test experimentally or computationally.
So what’s the point of my research? To dig up new research questions, like those proposed by alternate theories. Or, at least, to take a step in the direction of new research questions. That seems like a pretty flimsy answer to an important question – but that is the beauty of exploratory research. By beginning without a firm idea of where I’m going, there are few limitations in scope of thought, and I can follow whatever rabbit holes seem most promising. In a few months, after mapping my academic wanderings, I can set off in a specific direction for the rest of the project.