‘Have you tried nailing jello to a tree?’
I have not partaken of jello crucifiction, as such, but am willing to try (nearly) anything once for the sake of learning.
I am a 38-year old graduate student, specifically in Biochemistry. Even more specifically, I swim around in the Sea of Enzymology, occasionally crawling ashore onto the Island of Structural Biology in order to dry out and poop. The road that’s brought me here was unbelievably ridiculous and is more or less why I have an ‘About’ page (all future resumes will have only my current contact information and the URL to my ‘About’ page).
I don’t blog enough anymore. People have given me a lot of grief about this and it’s instructive that most of them don’t anymore, each of them having effectively given up. My output began to wane in the spring of 2010, I suppose, when I was in the process of preparing myself for the preliminary exam that would determine my transitioning from graduate student to PhD candidate. I came to this program from a compute science background and immediately from a masters degree that had involved research into the world of computational biology. I had zero experience in a lab environment and within two years of beginning my current program, I found myself writing a 20-page grant proposal on what scientific questions I was going to answer over the course of the next ~3 years.
Blogging was, therefore, low on the priority list, but it paid off. The prelims went well, high fives were given and received, and I started hunkering down into the meaty part of hardcore biomedical research, which I’ve come to love. I love it because it’s challenging in ways that regularly make people quit. It requires a very thick skin and a propensity to accept constant failure on one level or another. Simply put: This shit is hard. And it’s hard because mammals are complicated. I’ve said this so often here that I’m thinking it should be my new tagline. And yet, sitting a year on from passing my prelims and a mere three years into a subject about which I knew precious little, I’ve just published a peer-reviewed paper in a big ‘ol science journal regarding a little enzyme, the mutation of which leads to lupus and other autoimmune diseases.
All this is to say that I’ve been unavoidably detained trying not to fall behind in a world where people regularly get passed or trampled or tossed aside. Blogging has been secondary. Recently, however, some science types have been poking me in the direction of writing more openly about research, in general, and mine, specifically. The world of science desperately needs a PR department and if you have an outlet, an audience (size mattering little here, as well), and a clue in the grammar/spelling/punctuation department, it’s something that one should strongly consider. And I have. And still do. And sincerely want to as soon as possible. But….
Like all other aspects of life, you become stale in research when you fail to push yourself beyond comfort zones. All growth, personal or otherwise, requires such maneuvers, uncomfortable though they may be. It’s great to publish and mandatory for survival in the scientific world, but you can’t keep doing the same shit in perpetuity and expect to be successful. So, this week in the process of brainstorming other avenues of discovery, I found myself once again feeling galactically stupid. Inadequate, even. This is also why people quit this line of work. You spend inordinate amounts of time feeling like an idiot. Pushing yourself in this context means walking down roads that neither you nor anyone else has previously walked. This not only invites failure to the party, but you also include an offer to drive failure to said party and the promise to provide failure unlimited access to both your bar and your toilet. ‘The more you learn, the less you know’ isn’t a cliché; it’s that you understand with devastating clarity how much more there is.
What keeps a person going is the understanding that failure might not show up. And the more instances where failure doesn’t show up, the more intoxicating the prospect of not failing becomes. This is the only time I’ve ever been grateful for having an addictive personality. I’d be remiss (and a failure in this challenge) if I didn’t mention the importance of having a mentor that pulls no punches, never allows you wiggle room in your understanding of a problem or its potential answer, and constantly challenges you to stay outside of your aforementioned comfort zones. After every incremental success, mine stands expressionless before me holding a silver platter on which there sits a hammer, a nail, and a plate with a little square blob of goo and he asks, ‘Have you tried nailing jello to a tree?’ Because that’s essentially what each next step in research requires.
Sir @ August 25, 2011