Dr. David Kelley got his start in STEM when he realized he could get an edge in his fantasy baseball league by studying statistics. Since then, he has used computational science, statistics, and machine learning to tackle a few more pressing problems as well.
1. What questions drive you? Why are these important and how does science help you answer them?
I enjoy working to break complex things down to their simplest mechanisms. Right now, I’m focused on understanding how life works. We know there’s a genetic code that’s passed from parent to offspring, providing the instructions to make a new individual. But the steps in between are largely a mystery. This is critical basic biology that we’ll need in order to take on the big problems to benefit society like describing how diseases manifest and how we can tailor treatments to each individual according to their genome. The scientific method is the only way we’ve been able to tackle complex problems questions like these. These days in biology, we’re able to measure many different attributes of what’s going in in cells. From there, we propose hypothesis, put them to the test, and steadily increase knowledge.
2. What has surprised you the most since becoming a scientist? What common misconceptions are still out there?
Participating in the scientific community has helped me realize that the stories we tell about lone scientific geniuses single-handedly advancing the state of the art are exaggerated and mostly irrelevant. Science is an enormous team effort! Individuals almost always work in teams to accomplish big results, and their advances depend on the work of many other teams around the globe. For that reason, careers in science are far more accessible than many kids believe. I’m no genius! But my curiosity drove me to work very hard on problem after problem, each time learning more, until eventually, I could contribute to novel insights. I wish more potential young scientists understood that passion and persistence are the key to success.
3. What do you like to do outside of science? Have any of your broader experiences shaped you as a researcher?
I enjoy exploring the world both in and out of science. I’ve traveled widely to experience different cultures and see the earth’s amazing sites. I’ve always found sports extremely fun and play a lot of hockey, basketball, and snowboard. As a kid, baseball offered my first exposure to probability, statistics, and predicting outcomes. I wanted to figure out exactly how good the different players were so I could beat my friends in fantasy sports leagues! Now, I apply similar methods to biological data (and occasionally still baseball stats!).
4. Why do you think it’s important for scientists to share their work with the public? What role do you think science does or should play in broader society?
Another shortcoming of our stories about scientists are their disregard for communication. These days, scientists need to be effective communicators of their research, both to other scientists and the general public. Scientific insights in one person’s brain aren’t much use to everyone else! In order for progress to occur, those insights need to spread to other people who can put them to use in further novel ways. In today’s society where technology is rapidly changing, those creating that change have a responsibility to engage with the public to ensure that the technology and its implications for people’s lives are well understood.
5. What advice would you give young students who are interested in science?
Just do it! The curious life is an incredibly rewarding one. Ask questions, follow your passions, and keep moving forward through the ups and downs. At times, we all feel uncertain. Are we asking the right question? Is there a better way to tackle it? The only way to find out is to keep working and keep learning. Through all of that, one day you’ll wake up and realize, “Wow, I’m a scientist, working at the edge of human knowledge!” It’s a thrilling journey.