Research: came for the answer, stayed for the question

Honours- or Masters-level degrees are usually a student’s first real research experience. People come to research for many reasons: because they like the subject matter, because they like the equipment or just because they enjoy the process of investigation. I certainly didn’t begin a research career for the latter. Surprisingly, nobody told me that the best thing about research would be being proven wrong.

When Steven Sherwood described an honours project to me over the phone in early 2013, I was excited, curious and a little worried. I wasn’t yet sure whether I’d be suited to a career in research, having taken time off since my bachelor’s degree, but the premise — a project exploring the role humidity plays in human heat stress — sounded irresistible to me. Who doesn’t hate suffering on a humid day?

Like most overconfident students, I was privately looking forward to seeing data validate my intuition. The Australian Open had just made headlines for changing its heat policy to consider humidity, and everyone I spoke to could relate to running the fans through a hot, humid night. I started my project looking forward to seeing what other authors in the field had to say about it.

But I wasn’t seeing much. Heat-health papers had been popular for a while, but most authors were only interested in temperature, and the few who did look at humidity didn’t seem to find anything. But still, I reasoned, maybe I was just ahead of the curve; my own analysis could show something totally different. I got to work on it, compiling the hospital admission records of Darwin residents.

After months of indecipherable error messages and illegible plots, my analysis began to take shape. I knew better than to trust those first results — I hadn’t implemented most of the assumptions that defined my research yet — but I was still quietly disappointed to see that nothing obviously humidity-related was happening. By this time I’d started thinking that heat stress was entirely down to temperature.

But then my research threw me another curveball. As the very last parts of the research design came into place, we saw a humidity effect — not during the day, when temperature was affecting admissions, but at night. Temperature and humidity were both acting on health in Darwin, but they were acting at different times of day.

Was this because people couldn’t escape the heat at night? Was it because their sleep was being disrupted? Why wasn’t overnight temperature important? Were the last chapters of my thesis going to have anything other than question marks? The overnight humidity effect surprised me so much that I decided to pursue it for three more years in a PhD.

At just about every point in my project I thought I’d found the answer, peeled back to the centre of the onion. And at just about every point in my project I was wrong. The best research projects are like the best thrillers: they keep you guessing ‘til the end.

This post originally appeared on climatescience.org.au.