Would this idea be too sensitive / too much information / generally a bad idea?

For example, I have a friend who is doing her computational biology PhD at a strong U.S. program, and her main research is about the illness of one of her family members, whom she unfortunately lost recently.

I have also heard of specialist (medical) doctors who got into their field because they suffered from the very illness that they are now trained to diagnose and treat.

For me, at a much lower level, at the MS Thesis level, I have a chance to work with a very well-known applied mathematician, who has joint appointments at our math dept and medical school. But, I don't have a clue what project I would like to initiate with him, other than about something that I have dealt with personally and medically -- and this topic could likely be within his research domain. Of course, I would be naturally very passionate about working in this area. I am always fascinated, when I see my own team of doctors twice a year to have discussions about my health.

If I could do a mathematical project about my own health issue, do you think that this is ... TMI? A classic "beginner's mistake" perhaps? Or, is it pretty common for applied mathematicians to dedicate some (or all) of their research to issues that they are intimately familiar with?


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    At the very least, this is likely to motivate you more. I see this as positive.
    – svavil
    Commented Jul 2, 2016 at 8:52
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    The only problem I could see if your specific issue does not lend itself to a mathematical treatment -- either generally or at the level of a masters thesis. This is hard to say without knowing specifics (and this is not the place for it). But this is something your advisor can decide. My advice is to propose the project and see what they say. It's quite likely that they will shift the project away from your specific issue toward more basic research -- do not be disappointed; if it works out, it'll just be the first step in your research program. Commented Jul 2, 2016 at 9:35
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    This question is strongly in need of someone specifically from the medical profession. I've heard anecdotes that very much counter yours, where students are turned away from medical research because of their personal involvement (there are plenty of non-biased people who are also enthusiastic, and enthusiasm only gets diminishing returns in terms of success). You'll probably gets lots of encouragement from outsiders, since this sounds like the plot from a feel-good, against-all-odds movie, but whatever medical researchers themselves say trumps all anecdotes.
    – user4512
    Commented Jul 3, 2016 at 2:26
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    is the research you're planning to do of general importance? are your proposed methods likely to produce informative results? these are the questions you should be asking. your own medical history is really not even close to the most important thing here. but don't let anyone tell you your medical history disqualifies you from pursuing any research endeavor. @ChrisWhite's comment doesn't make any sense to me.
    – abcd
    Commented Jul 3, 2016 at 3:05
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    I think the answers below cover the big points to consider, but I thought I'd add that I have heard a colloquialism for this. It's called "me-search," and I think you particularly see it in fields like psychology. That being said, it's fairly common,
    – marcman
    Commented Jul 3, 2016 at 4:08

2 Answers 2


Having personal engagement with your research can be a great benefit:

  • Being directly affected by something is a strong motivator for persisting through the inevitable struggles of research.
  • Being engaged also gives you perspective that may help with formulating effective questions and answers and avoiding traps in thinking.

Some successful examples I personally know in the biomedical field include an amputee researcher of artificial limbs and an autism researcher with an autistic sibling.

As @xLeitix says, there can be challenges with personal bias, but I don't see that as any different than the personal bias that all researchers bring to their subjects.

In fact, I think one needs to be more careful if you are not directly engaged with a problem, because it is easy to be blind to the true needs of the people involved. Consider, for example, the way in which a largely male medical establishment simply ignored many aspects of women's health for many years, or the continuing embarrassment of many misguided aid projects in the developing world.

In short: go where your passion is taking you.

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    I agree with this, but I do think that the danger of bias is more substantial if you are deeply personally involved than in projects where this is not the case.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Jul 2, 2016 at 13:49
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    @xLeitix: It depends on the motivation. If you are personally strongly committed to helping others due to personal experience, you will not easily face the danger of bias at least in the area you are trying to contribute to. Though you may have narrowed perception due to a biased view that your area is more important than others. However, if you're committed to some ideology, that is downright dangerous.
    – user21820
    Commented Jul 3, 2016 at 6:18

I do not have experience with specifically applied maths, but in general, there is no problem at all with conducting research in a direction that you have some personal connection with. One could argue that many applied research projects are driven by concrete needs, and I fail to see why those would have to be needs of other people rather than a researcher's own.

That being said, you will need to remain cautious of your own bias in your endeavours. As a researcher, it will be expected of you to work on the topic from a neutral, scientific, "big picture" perspective, which is easy to lose if you are at the same time also part of this "picture".

Let me provide one example from my own research. I conduct research on software engineering. Many of our best PhD students have worked as software developers prior to starting their PhD, so in a way they are also part of the same demographics that they research. What can now happen with inexperienced students is that (s)he will, for instance, interview developers with regard to a specific problem, process, or practice, and, during the analysis phase, discard statements that go against their own prior experience as "obviously wrong" or "bad". In that way, a student may overemphasize results that resonate with her/his own prior experience, and discard results that don't, essentially guaranteeing that the results are in line with what the student expected going into the study based on her/his own experience.

You will need to make sure that you do not run into the same trap - don't assume that everybody experiences your health issues the same way, that you are some sort of gold standard of this specific condition, or that your specific variation is more important or relevant than others. However, these are definitely issues that a good advisor can help you with.


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