A brief story about figuring things out for yourself.

I was an undergrad and had my first research grant. I was on research staff for the university for the summer, and I would 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 to school for the summer, I would get 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 floated to the lab every day.

I got to work and immediately fumbled. I ran my first test and stared at a big goose egg for results. Hmm. I tried again and 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 first 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.

Ready to cash in my life of science for literature, I gave it one more shot. I came in early the next morning, a Saturday, when I knew that no one was there. I stripped my four-feet bench of paper and tossed any bit of glassware in the washer. I made all new reagents and got new bottles of anything I couldn’t make. When I finished, I had a clean top, clean tools, and unopened chemicals. No trace was left of another soul. I screwed up my courage and performed the test once more. When I came in on Monday morning, I was fantastically happy to see textbook examples of what I was looking for. Maybe I did a little dance.

I knew exactly what happened. I was using reagents off the shelf that someone else had made. I hadn’t a clue who made them or how long they sat there or if they had an expiration date. Why hadn’t I caught any of this? Shouldn’t I have caught it? I decided right there never to 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, writ large.

My Most Valuable Lesson

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 researcher, 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. I think he was right.

I wonder: how can this lesson apply to the creative life?

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