Image 1. Sure we all trip up on failure, but it’s how you get back up that makes the real success. (Photo by OpenIcons on pixabay.com)
When it comes to mentoring students in the lab, the lesson that I’ve found is the most important to teach is how to fail. Now, that may sound incredibly disheartening to a blooming scientist, but there is a big difference between the assignments you complete in a classroom versus your own project in a research lab.
Whenever I teach an introductory course to microbiology, the students are given protocols to start their project. They are told to streak bacterial cells onto an agar plate from a test tube containing an “unknown” organism –which will be 1 of the 5 they were introduced to throughout the semester. Using the techniques they learned in class, such as:
Colony morphology (what is the shape, texture, and color of a cell mass that can be observed by the naked eye)
Microscopy (what do individual cells look like when they are magnified by a factor of 1000)
Differential and selective media (different substances and indicators in media to further characterize the physiology of an organism)
– they then have to determine what their unknown is (see Fig 1 for an example). It is a very straightforward lab lesson that encompasses all that the students have learned with a little fun in figuring out a mystery of “Who’s in your the test tube?” However, with the exception of the odd unfortunate contamination, it will always work. It was designed to work. The teaching assistants have the answer key of what results students should see, based on the fact that we’ve already test-run the experiments to make sure we don’t lead the students astray. The important part of this exercise is that the students are learning fundamental laboratory techniques.
Figure 1. Left: Media plate with bacteria (a single colony is highlighted by a black circle). For this particular plate, the colony morphology would be circular for shape, smooth surface for texture, and an opaque white for color. (Photo by Gina Chaput). Right: Image of bacteria under the microscope at 1000x magnification. Colors are based on Gram staining that determines cell wall properties. In purple are Gram positive cocci (circular shaped cells) and in pink are Gram positive bacilli (rod shaped cells). (Photo by Y. tambe on wikipedia.com)
The truth is, however, that microbiology does not work that way. In fact, if a protocol goes smoothly the first time and yields the expected results, we are more skeptical of that data than if it hadn’t worked! Often students come into a research lab thinking they will get results in three weeks just like they did in their microbiology courses. As a mentor, it is my job to keep that excitement and curiosity thriving while also instilling the importance of perseverance and troubleshooting.
Image 2. Working with success and failure in lab (Art by Gina Chaput)
In my opinion, learning from your failure is probably the best way to develop as a promising researcher. I spent the first year in my lab working on a project that ended in negative results and which I eventually had to terminate. Frustrating? Most definitely! No matter what I did, my bacterial strain would not grow on any of carbon sources that I gave it. Yet, looking back, the troubleshooting skills I learned along the way have been invaluable for the future projects I took on.
My troubleshooting started with my knowledge base in microbiology. I’d ask questions such as:
Are all the nutrients needed for the cells to grow available?
Are the conditions too acidic or basic where it is killing the cells?
What controls, or conditions where the outcome is known, can I use to compare growth in parallel to the experimental conditions?
When this was not working, I started expanding into biochemistry, molecular biology, and bioinformatics. By the end of it I was even reading up on organic chemistry and chemical engineering articles to see if other science fields could indirectly help answer the questions I was developing:
Why is compound “A” lethal? What is the structure of compound “A”? Is there a substance that is similar to compound “A”’s properties but its structure lacks the lethal effect so cells can use it as food?
Is there a substance in the media that is having a chemical reaction with compound “A”? Is this changing the structure of compound “A” to make it lethal? What can I do to reverse or slow down the reaction to see some growth of my cells?
As I checked off each box with a negative result (and maybe a few expletives), I didn’t notice that how I structured my troubleshooting was becoming more concise and pulling in aspects of the experiment I would not have thought of if I had been in a class setting.
Just like the students I mentor, I came from my undergraduate microbiology courses where everything worked. It was a culture shock to me how common it was to fail at what seemed like a simple project. My advisor looked at me during one meeting as I was summarizing my results (or lack thereof). I must’ve been poor at hiding my hopelessness of the situation and my abilities because all of a sudden she began telling me stories of her Ph.D. research. Her entire thesis failed. In fact, if I remember correctly, her thesis ended up being what she discovered in her experiments that were not supposed to have results! Her commiseration helped me understand that my failures were okay, and that I might even learn something from them.
Thanks to my personal failures along the way, whenever I take on a student, on their first day I tell them this story just like my PI told hers to me. I want them to understand that the purpose of research is not to have a perfect outcome right off the bat, but to develop your own critical thinking – push the limits of your knowledge base. That’s the real success of failure.
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