Be it in information technology or nanotechnology, the speed of technological advances has been staggering in recent years and is showing no sign of letting up. Most young researchers feel that they are taking part in this momentum. But this, of course, lays down a challenge to all of us postdocs: Are we really technocrats or not?
In today's laboratory, those who master the emerging technologies often hold the high ground in the long-term career battle--if you insist on only working with technologies you are familiar with, you will never break the mould. Techno-wizards are sought after both by their colleagues and by employers. They are the problem-solvers extraordinaire. Fortunately, to become such a hired gun of the science world you do not need to get to grips with all the bewildering array of cutting-edge machinery, software, and knowledge. All you need to do is select your fledgling technology wisely, and push your luck a little bit.
The major choice you need to make is 'homemade' vs. 'off-the-shelf'. It is quite possible to develop your own technology, and you can start in a small way by trying to design protocols or cobbling bits and pieces of equipment together to solve your own research problems. If you have a really good homemade idea that does the job better than anything else commercially available, you may want to take soundings amongst your peers on whether it's worth pursuing further and start thinking about technology transfer.
An easier alternative to the homemade approach is to use something well-known in an innovative way--a new assay based on a long-established and widely used chemical, for instance. Whilst you might never go into full-scale production and make your fortune, you will, at least, get a reputation around the lab as someone who is prepared to have a go at tinkering. Of course it's even better kudos if your creation or idea actually works.
In the same spirit, you may be able to tap into a new emerging technology in another field, before your rivals realise it may be a good way to make a name for yourself. We are currently attempting this approach in the lab where I work. Your added value comes from adapting the technology to your own field, demonstrating that it can work, and 'selling' it to your peers. However, it's always a trade-off between your current research and finding the time to play with the new toy.
Naturally, mastering an off-the-shelf kit is the easy way to make your reputation as a technocrat. Many businesses are grappling with the scepticism that surrounds their new products and readily offer hefty discounts or free samples to build up a loyal following. This might seem like a golden opportunity but you need to make your choice wisely as many of these technologies will be marginalised in just a few years? time by the latest new thing to come along.
I practice the basic tenet of mastering technologies that have made big enough a splash to stay around for a while, but that are not so well established that everyone is using them. My colleagues and I recently became departmental experts in such a technology almost overnight. What we did was one simple set of experiments, and it wasn't that technically challenging either. But nobody around us had done it before and what we did was hot news.
Whatever means you choose to get ahead in the technology stakes you have one important barrier to overcome: the peer-review system. Scientists are famous for pulling in the reins on new ideas and being hard on their proponents. There are a lot of influential people out there who have seen it all before and know just how unreliable new things can be. They seem to be especially vitriolic in their criticism if they feel that too many people have jumped on the bandwagon before a new technology is proven sound. 'More controls required', or 'More replication' they write! Quite naturally, a little suspicion can do a great deal of damage to your chances of funding or publication. Still, successful new technologies do emerge and often later become the way of doing things. So simply be prepared to prove that what you have done is valid, reproducible, quantifiable, trustworthy, or otherwise real a little more than when you are using run-of-the-mill technologies.
There are two notes of caution to add. One, don't lead yourself down a blind alley. Just because you believe in your technique and think it's really hot, it doesn't mean anyone else will. Be prepared to pull out if it looks as if you have backed a loser after all. Two, beware of getting labelled as a technical wizard. Although some PIs build their entire academic career on 'selling' their technical services to others, your chances of success might be better if you are seen as an ?incisive ideas? person rather than a one-trick technocrat.