Master of None: A Reflection on Conversations at the Levin Lab

By Sarabesh Natarajan, Summer Intern in Dr. Ed Levin’s Lab

Scientists keep wanting to specialize until they become the masters of nothing. -Ed Levin 

I spent my summer at the Ed Levin lab contributing to many projects – I conducted behavioral assessments on zebrafish that were exposed to PFAS early in their development. I also helped inject rats with THC extract. The Levin lab uses animal models like zebrafish and rats to conduct toxicology research, but initially, I was quite skeptical about conducting animal research. I grew up a vegetarian for religious reasons, but I also developed a belief in protecting the rights of animals. You can only imagine the cognitive dissonance I felt, then, when I found out I would have to “sack” rats throughout the summer. However, talking to other members of the lab made me realize that the disdain for killing lab animals isn’t unique to an animal rights advocate like me. Their use of the word “sack” itself alludes to this; “sack” is a shorthand form of “sacrifice,” a recognition that these animals are undergoing unpleasant experiences for a greater good. Indeed, members of the lab used the word “sacrifice” in lieu of “kill” to distance themselves from the unpleasant feelings associated with ending the life of an animal. After further discussing the issue with likeminded friends and my uncle (a researcher at Case Western who conducts animal research), I came to realize that conducting animal research is an immense privilege that benefits humankind. 

In speaking with Dr. Levin and Dr. Andrew Hawkey, a postdoc in the lab, I also began to appreciate animal research and how it can provide a more accurate context for toxicology research more broadly. The three of us discussed how the scientific community disproportionately emphasizes and rewards specializing in one topic in the field—such as knowing everything about one cellular process or structure—consequently isolating that specific content from its greater scientific context during experimentation. Animal research, however, preserves such context and, according to Dr. Levin, provides an excellent starting point for homing in on the specifics of a larger phenomenon. Thus, through discussion and mindset shifts, I resolved the internal conflict between my values and the research I was performing. 

The conversations I had with Drs. Levin and Hawkey also prompted me to reflect on whether I wanted to shape myself into a specialist or generalist. The decision was an easy one, and I could not have agreed more with their philosophy. As a student and avid learner, I have always prided myself in knowing a little bit of everything—a jack of all trades and a master of none. But how was I going to become a so-called generalist, a more well-rounded person? I thought about this in the context of my career goals; as an aspiring physician. I reflected on the possibility of becoming a general practitioner—a doctor who doesn’t specialize in a particular organ system but rather treats ailments involving any or multiple organ systems. I applied this notion to my hobbies by picking up athletics and piano over the summer. I even saw my work at the Levin lab transform me into more of a generalist; I contributed a bit to nearly every project in the multidisciplinary lab, and took it upon myself to understand the background behind each project. 

While the primary purpose of my time at the Levin lab was to contribute to groundbreaking science, this summer experience also molded my personal values. Research isn’t always about the end results; the journey is impactful as well. The conversations I had at the Levin lab instilled in me a newfound appreciation for animal research and shaped my perspective on guiding my personal development.