This is what it looks like in print when I bang my head against a wall. One thing that I don’t do nearly enough here is talk about what I do. Why do I feel like I need to do this more or even at all? Because going type-y type-y does less emotional damage than burying it, that’s why. Actually (Also), Biomedical research is fascinating stuff and I don’t think there’s enough out there to illustrate this fact. Or maybe there is, but it lacks a certain articulation that enables people not involved to understand and/or appreciate what a spiffy endeavor it is. This is ultimately my goal, I suppose, that coincides nicely with never working directly for anyone ever again as long as I live: Freelance-write science crap to help lay-people understand junk about both stuff and baloney. Articulate is my middle name, as you can see.
The shortest explanation for the bonking is that shit in the lab isn’t working. Actually, let me be clear on this point and let this be the first in probably many lessons bestowed here concerning research: Shit in the lab rarely works. And ‘works’ is an incredibly subjective term. An experiment might work perfectly, but provide a result that makes you stand in one place staring at a wall for hours trying to figure out what it all means. Just because the result makes you want to punch a nun doesn’t mean that the experiment didn’t work, technically speaking. My problem with the results that I’m currently getting is that I can’t duplicate them. I’ve pooped out all kinds of spectacular data, highly publishable stuff, groundbreaking, earth-shattering, bodice-ripping science, but the kicker is that if I can’t duplicate any of it, basically it never happened. Like a tree that falls in an empty wood makes nary a sound, experimental results that can’t be duplicated never really happened.
And the time that’s been spent. My God. Repeating the same things over and over again and getting slightly different results, while following the same damn protocols. Every day. Over and over. I recently heard a story about someone who walked away from a different biomedical graduate program to become a lawyer and when asked why, she replied that there came a point where she just got sick of always being wrong. This is completely understandable and it’s a good thing to figure out early in the game. My limited experience with how research works, in and out of the lab, has shown me that it consists of the following basic life-cycle, which has been confirmed, more or less, by people in the know:
wrong wrong wrong wrong nada nope wrong zip zilch OH! wrong wrong HA! wrong nothing no hmm, that’s odd crap IT BURNS! wrong wrong victory! repeat
And victory isn’t a given. It doesn’t even have a solid definition. For some it might be getting a grant funded or being given tenure at some university or perhaps just getting published. Whatever. The bottom line is that the entire process is a perfectionist’s nightmare. If you have a fear of snakes, throw yourself into a pit full of asps, a la Indiana Jones. If you’re afraid of failure, however, I HIGHLY recommend you start doing research and learn how to get over it.
So, here’s the thing: I’m working with ridiculously small amounts of stuff. Think about one liter of something. Thought about it? Okey dokey, then. One milliliter is 1000-times smaller. One microliter is 100,000-times smaller, a nanoliter is a million-times smaller, and a picoliter is 100,000,000-times smaller. I play with the nano- and pico-levels of this and that, which means that room for error doesn’t really exist. Everything I play with needs to remain frozen and if it doesn’t or if it’s frozen/thawed too many times, it might or might not be adversely effected. The variables involved in why a result might be ‘odd’ are endless. Also, and I’ve stated this here before, mammals are fucking complicated.
I realize that the word ‘should’ can be both a dangerous and debilitating one in any walk of life. It can weigh a person down like an anchor. I have less than two years experience with being in a lab environment and, truth be told, have seen more success than abject failure. Given my comparative lack of background, I’d say that I’m ahead of the power curve, generally speaking. Nevertheless, and I say this with the keenest understanding of how ridiculous and pointless it is, but THIS SHIT SHOULD BE WORKING AND MY WASTING TIME REPEATEDLY HAVING IT NOT WORK BECAUSE SATURN IS IN THE FOURTH HOUSE OR A BUTTERFLY SNEEZED OR I HAD A DREAM WHERE A FAT DUDE HOLDING A BUCKET OF APPLES STARTED LAUGHING AT ME IS DRIVING ME BATSHIT CRAZY AND MAKING ME DREAM ABOUT PORTLY FRUIT-BEARING PEOPLE.
Getting back to my original point, I still love research and science is amazing, but it’s kind of like getting kicked around by a bipolar elephant. Nevertheless, this rambling screed seems like an excellent way to inaugurate the ‘science’ category. Next time: What’s an enzyme and why are they so fucking fickle with their love?
Sir @ February 26, 2010