The Most Valuable Lesson In Doing Science

Figure It Out

A brief story about figuring things out for yourself:

I was an undergrad working under my first research grant. I was to continue unfinished work from one of my professors doing molecular biology.  I was thrilled. Who wouldn’t be? Surely a Nobel couldn’t be far off? When all the other kids went home from school for the summer, I would be on university staff getting paid for what I would gladly do for free. My plan was a good one: repeat the previously completed work to familiarize myself with the techniques and to make sure I got the same results. Then I would advance alone and brave into uncharted places.

I got to work and immediately fumbled. I ran my first test and got a big goose egg. Hmm. I tried again but paid closer attention to performing the protocol exactly as written. My heart sank the next morning when I opened the incubator and saw a set of clean Petri dishes. No results. I tried it again, but this time I sat down and wrote out the protocol with checkboxes. I would follow it exactly and check off each step off as I went. All to no avail. Clean dishes with no results.

Frustrated, I came in early the next morning, a Saturday, when I knew that no one was there. I stripped my four-feet of benchtop and tossed any bit of glassware in the washer. I made all new reagents, all new everything. When I finished, every single item I used was new, fresh, or clean. Girding myself, I took a deep breath, gathered my materials, and did the protocol one more time, not knowing what I would do if it didn’t work. Transfer to lit? I came in Monday morning and opened the incubator for the crowd. There they were: six Petri dishes with textbook example of exactly what I was looking for. I think someone clapped.

I Figured It Out

Instantly , I knew what happened. I was using reagents off a common shelf. I hadn’t a clue who had made them or how long they sat there. Why hadn’t I caught this? Shouldn’t I have caught it?  I decided right there to never trust anyone’s stuff in the lab again. I would always run something down until I knew exactly what it is and exactly when and how it was made. Trust but verify was my new mantra.

Students and staff lolled about that afternoon drinking Coke and telling war stories. I told the whole story to the other folks in the lab – they knew of my frustrations and something about inventing swear words came up. When I finished the story, one of the researchers, a Japanese man maybe five years past retirement, jumped up, clapped, and did a little dance. He laughed aloud and told me to forget all the crappy stuff I learned in college. He said that despite all the junk they tried to cram into me, on my own I had learned the most valuable lesson in science and, now, I was ready to do real work. I think he was right.


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