Figure It Out

A little lesson and a bit of memoir rolled into one 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. She started the project at University in Australia and never finished, always hoping to pick it up again. Another student worked on it for a while but had some challenges they weren’t prepared for. I had some money and it was a topic I enjoyed, so I was thrilled. Who wouldn’t be? Surely a Nobel couldn’t be far off? When all the other kids at school went home 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 and I sketched it out: 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.

On Monday morning, I came into the lab to get the ball rolling. I had already studied up on the topic and had a plan, so I got to work and immediately fumbled. I ran my tests and put the microbe-laced dishes in the incubator for the next morning, but when I looked at them, the results were all wrong. A big goose egg. Hmm. 

I tried again but paid closer attention this time 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 as I went. All to no avail. Clean dishes. The only result was clean dishes, meaning I did something wrong. The research trope that learning what doesn’t work is as important as what does fell on deaf ears. I was frustrated and wanted to keep going back further and further. Whatever I was doing wasn’t working so the problem had to be deeper. Or it was me. 

In a kind of desperation, I came in early the next morning, a Saturday, when I knew no one would be there, and decided to start from scratch. I stripped my four-feet of benchtop and put down new paper. I tossed any bit of glassware needed in the washer and made all new reagents, all new everything. When I finished, every test tube, every petri dish, every reagent, and even my benchtop was new or freshly made. 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. Probably drop out.

On Monday morning, I came in early again, alone, and stared at the incubator door before opening it. I grabbed the handle and tugged lightly, listening for a growl and hoping not to chase away any secrets. Craning my head to look inside, I could see them: six Petri dishes placed just as I had left them. At least I knew that no trolls had snuck in to mess with my experiment. I pulled the door open now, all the way, and could see them fully: six Petri dishes with textbook examples of exactly what I was looking for. I think 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 with a heavy emphasis on verify.

Students and staff lolled about that afternoon before going home, drinking Coke and telling 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 about getting the exact results I wanted and how I did it, 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 they stuffed into my head 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, he said, I was ready to do real work. I think he was right.



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