I am Going for a Five-Year Dive
By: Irina Tiper
It took me 189 weeks to learn a very simple lesson. My learning curve for enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISAs) was a bit steeper than my learning curve for simple life lessons. Admittedly, the life lesson here may have been learned earlier, but I struggled with letting it sink in.
My very first entry in my lab notebook is dated July 12, 2012. I will never forget that date. That’s when I joined my lab and found a place to dock in a marina of stability; my wonderful mentor was - and still is - the biggest source of that stability. Little did I know that I would be walking the plank on that very same day, when I would be presented with a chart of 363 molecules important for characterization of immune cells and the 1603 page immunology primer. Could I swim? Was there even a shore to swim to? Deep breath - I was going for a five-year dive.
Captain’s log, day 1325. I have reached a depth from which I can no longer see the surface. My hypothesis depended on the outcome of this final experiment - I needed it to work. It didn’t. My ELISA plate was completely blank, save for the positive control, which had turned a deep blue (I couldn't even get the dilution right). Ironically, 1325 days ago, my positive control was blank.
What’s the lesson, then?
I didn’t learn anything significant about my project, I didn’t contribute to the ocean of scientific knowledge, and I only sunk deeper. Where was the shore?
When our newest post-doc joined the lab, I knew there was a shore. She had graduated from my program and still had a smile on her face. The dissertation defense announcements I had seen told me that it was possible to graduate, but I was surprised by the wide smile on the face of someone who defended mere weeks ago. I tried to figure out how she kept up her cheery demeanor despite the many years of failed experiments. The secret was not so secret: you will get your PhD, even if your positive control didn’t work that one time (or a few times).
Our hypotheses may hinge on a single experiment, but our worth as scientists doesn’t. Next time you have a day, a week, or a month of failed experiments, remember that they failed, not you.