The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
“Why do you think that happened?” my research mentor probed. His disheveled waist-length hair rustled as he nudged me to respond. Round, purple glasses tinted his vision, yet I felt he was staring deeply into my soul. His fingers tapped to the jazzy beat of the psychedelic Sly and the Family Stone song streaming from the vintage loudspeakers on his desk. The laboratory room was a symphony of funk rock, humming thermo cyclers, swirling flask shakers, and beeping PCR machines.
We were hunched in unison over the bacterial culture tubes that I had grown during the day. “RIP Pseudomonas 08/13/14-08/13/14” I had scribbled in my notebook. Lysed clumps of white DNA danced through the liquid growth medium as the professor swirled the contents of the Klett flask.
“So, why do you think that happened?” he repeated.
“I have no idea”, I naively but definitively responded.
One thing I had come to know was that the answer could almost certainly be found in a book. I could traverse the world, help Scarlett deliver Melanie’s baby in Gone with the Wind, time travel through Asimov’s End of Eternity, and tame giant sandworms in the sweltering heat of Dune. If I wanted to know about chemistry, there was Pauling’s The Nature of the Chemical Bond. If I couldn’t find books in print, I could easily find them in online databases. Surely, anything and everything could be found in literature. I would spend hours, ears plugged, clicking away at the computer, reading paper after paper, and attempting to identify exactly what I had to do to make the bacteria grow. This time, I found nothing.
Through his purple glasses, my mentor saw the problem differently. “You have to start somewhere, Leila. Sure, the publications will give you some help, but science is more than following instructions on a manual.” He was Zorba the Greek, ready to explore any problem by testing and experimenting, while I stubbornly continued to munch monotonously away at my literature.
Weeks passed but to no avail, and I finally decided to get off the desk chair. “Glad you decided to join the party”, Dr. Myers joked. “The Right of Spring” boomed from the speakers, beckoning a shaky, yet promising new start. The first couple of trials in which I had manipulated aeration to measure its effect on bacterial growth were unfortunately unproductive. After school, I would hastily drop my backpack to the floor and rush to the incubator at the back. Did they grow? Lifting the flask from the chamber, my anticipation sunk to disappointment as the white DNA swirled mockingly to my frustration.
I asked myself “Why did this happen?” This time, however, instead of excavating mammoth piles of articles and books, trying to prove why the cultures didn’t grow, I sought to test different combinations of variables, build upon the data I collected and develop an accurate and precise method for promoting growth. There is no one specific answer to “why did this happen?” that can be found in a book, because the real world cannot be contained in words. As a scientist, I can only design and test models that come infinitely close to the asymptotic nature of truth. Pathways, developing drugs, or designing therapies that will ultimately improve human health. As for now, I continue experimenting, never forgetting that the answer to a problem is only a test away.