A brief story about figuring things out for yourself:
I was an undergrad and had my first research grant to continue unfinished work from one of my professors doing chromosome mapping. I was thrilled. Who wouldn’t be? Surely a Nobel couldn’t be far off? When all the other kids went home from school for the summer, I would be on university staff getting paid for what I would gladly do for free. My plan was a good one: repeat the previously completed work to familiarize myself with the techniques and to make sure I got the same results. Then I would advance alone into uncharted places.
I got to work and immediately fumbled. I ran my first test and got a big goose egg. Hmm. Trying again, I but paid much closer attention to performing the protocol exactly as written. My heart sank again the next morning when I opened the incubator to see a set of clean Petri dishes. No results. I tried it again. This time I sat down and wrote out the protocol with checkboxes. I would follow it exactly and check each step off as I went. All to no avail. Clean dishes with no results.
I came in early the next morning, a Saturday, when I knew that no one was there. I stripped my four-feet of benchtop and tossed any bit of glassware in the washer and made all new reagents. By the time I was done, every single item I used was new, fresh, or clean. I took the time to perform the test once more and when I came in Monday morning I was fantastically happy to see textbook examples of what I was looking for.
The Figuring It Out
I knew exactly what had happened: I was using reagents off the shelf. I hadn’t a clue who had made them or how long they had sat there. Why hadn’t I caught this? Shouldn’t I have caught it? I decided right there to never trust anyone’s stuff in the lab again. I would always run something down until I knew exactly what it is and exactly when and how it was made. Trust but verify was my new mantra.
As we lolled about that afternoon (there is lots of lolling about in a research lab), I told the whole story to the other folks in the lab. They knew of my frustrations – something about inventing swear words came up – and were glad to see me happy again. When I finished the story, one of the researchers, a tiny Japanese man about five years past retirement age, jumped up and clapped. He laughed aloud and told me to forget all the crappy stuff I learned in college. He said that in spite of all the junk they tried to cram into me, I had finally learned the most valuable lesson in science and I was now ready to do real work. And I think he was right.
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This wasn’t published yet, and I wasn’t young, but I wish it was…