Thursday, June 19, 2008

Failure in Science

Candid Engineer in Academia has a great post up today about failure in science (which, btw, if you're not reading Candid Engineer yet, you should be... she's your snarky friend from grad school). Candid Engineer, it seems, has the resilience-in-the-face-of-failure gene. I think pretty much all successful scientists must have this gene.

In science, it's pretty much guaranteed that approximately 99% of the work you do will end in either:

A) Human Error-related Failure... you spend six days working on an experiment and end up sucking your DNA pellet into the vacuum line, or you drop your gel into the sink where it shatters into 18,000 pieces

B) Technical Failure... the experiment was a good idea in theory, but in practice the technique doesn't have high enough resolution, or the mutants you want to test have no phenotype, or your screen isn't stringent enough

C) Systems Failure... because maybe E. coli doesn't like having extra copies of your gene of interest (at least not in that orientation), or the double mutant you want to test is actually dead, or your strain gets suppressors faster than you can test your mutation

And there are some people, like Candid Engineer, like Husband, who take all of this in stride. They have the resilience-in-the-face-of-failure gene, and they know that failure is just another day at the office. I think the reason I have such a hard time with bench work in the long run is that experiment failure always feels like personal failure. And I hate feeling like an idiot all the time.

Maybe it's time for me to look into gene therapy.


The bean-mom said...

Oh, I hear you. Being at the bench was a roller-coaster with more "downs" than "ups" for me. When my projects were working, I felt on top of the world--like I was just flying through the workdays. And when they didn't work, I *always* took it as a sign of personal failure.

Sadly, as you say, experiments fail more than 90% of the the time. So I guess I spent the majority of my time feeling like an utter failure, redeemed only by the 10% of the time (once a year?) that things worked!

ScientistMother said...

separating the science from the person is hard. I'm not sure if its a gene, or just something that, at least for me, takes a long long time to learn

ScienceGirl said...

Not taking work failures personally is a gene I do not seem to have either. "And I hate feeling like an idiot all the time." Ditto.

CityzenJane said...

Failures? Or mistakes you won't be making again? I like to think "I got that one out of the way!"

I will never have to do or try X again!

This works in all kinds of situations, that don't work out.

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