One of the most valuable experiences that I have had while involved in undergraduate research has been that of failure. My participation in research over the past three years has taught me how to fail gracefully, how to handle the emotional and psychological impact of failure, and even how to predict and minimize failure. I am fortunate to have had all of these lessons and experiences before successful experiments become a prerequisite for tasks like completing a PhD thesis or submitting a competitive grant application. I have learned at an early stage in my career that failure is large a part of science. If an individual is unwilling or unable to accept failure as a part of his or her career, it is unlikely that he or she will be well suited for a career in research.
I now recognize that when I entered my freshman year, I had a very idealized view of the process by which scientific progress is accomplished. I had imagined teams of researchers working at furious pace toward curing diseases, innovating new electronics, and better understanding the universe in which we live. After all, the pace of scientific innovation over the past one hundred years can be described as nothing short of incredible. To an outsider, who reads news of treatments and technologies that could hardly have been imagined 15 years ago, science appears to progress with relatively few obstacles and rate-limiting steps. I never could have imagined just how naive I was.
In my high school biology class, I first learned of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), one of the most beautiful, elegant, and ingenious techniques in modern biological research. This technique makes use of the cellular DNA replication machinery to amplify short segments of DNA to incredibly high quantities. PCR underlies much of the biological research currently being conducted and will only grow in importance as the field moves toward more sequence-driven research. Accordingly, when I tried to complete my first PCR, I was stunned to find that it failed to produce any level of DNA amplification.
In the years since, I have completed this reaction numerous times, often with great success, but occasionally with the unyielding sting of failure. I have failed for many different reasons, some my fault and some beyond my control. I have failed to add reagents, I have added reagents in incorrect volumes, and I have worked with expired or “cooked” enzymes. Over the past three years, I have come up with checks and systems that work to minimize failure in both PCR and other laboratory procedures that I must complete. I have learned to accept these setbacks and failures while simultaneously working diligently to minimize them.
In many ways, my experience in research thus far has been reminiscent of my experience playing baseball when I was younger. Take, for example, Ted Williams, the Boston Red Sox hall-of-famer considered by many to be one of the greatest offensive players to ever grace the game. Despite a Hall of Fame career, a reputation as one of greatest batters to ever play the game, and the publication of one of the seminal works on hitting (The Science of Hitting), Ted Williams was only a .344 lifetime hitter. For every ten plate-appearances, he was expected to reach base on a hit only about 3.5 times. In other words, he was expected to fail 6.5 times out 10, and he is still considered to be one of the greatest players of all time.
In baseball, as in science, it is not the number, but rather the nature of the failures that ultimately determines the legacy of an individual. Small failures, like botched PCRs or failed crosses, can often be overlooked as long as they do not interfere substantially with the larger project. However, the best scientists and ballplayers alike avoid the large, critical failures. The best scientists often have the foresight to avoid dead ends and blind alleys. Likewise, the best ballplayers are those that can manage a hit in critical situations, even though the odds of reaching base are forever against them. My dad once told me that the best ballplayers are those with the shortest memories—those that work hard to perfect their swing and the variables within their control, yet do not mentally hold on to their failures. I believe that the same is true of scientists.