Wednesday, May 13, 2015
Failure is something everyone struggles with. Whether it’s professional failure, personal failure, or some other kind of failure, everyone has failed at some point in their lives, and it has made them who they are today. However, there is nowhere more obviously influenced by failure than the field of scientific research. Thomas Edison failed over a thousand times before succeeding in inventing the lightbulb. Penicillin, the first and still most widely used antibiotic, was discovered because Fleming left his window open and accidentally contaminated his bacterial plates with mold. Modern rubber was accidentally discovered when Goodyear accidentally dropped an experiment on a stove.
In the lab, everything seems to constantly be going wrong. Working in biological research feels like a series of mistakes and failures that somehow miraculously comes together to become a coherent research project. At first, I felt like I was just a terrible scientist, because I never seemed to be able to do anything right. I wondered if this really was the career for me because I seemed to be terrible at it. Then, one night, I was talking to my supervisor about his recently failed experiment and he just shrugged it off and said, “It’s science, none of us really know what we’re doing anyways.” It was then that I realized I had been looking at my failures wrong. I wasn’t failing because I was a terrible scientist, I was failing because I was doing research on something that had never been done before. That’s why it is called research.
Of course, I failed a lot. Try building a car engine with no prior knowledge or instruction in mechanical engineering and you’ll see what I mean. As scientists, it is our job to fail and make the best of our failures. Sometimes those failures will lead to new discoveries, and sometimes, they will just be a really expensive waste of time. In the end nothing good ever gets built without a long string of failures preceding it and once you accept that, you are one step closer to becoming a scientist.