Sunday, April 05, 2009

It's the little failures every day.

Becca's comment that some people like to tell you

"It should work! It always works!"

on the last post made me think I should respond on the topic in general.

So, here is my feeling on the day-to-day failure we experience regularly as scientists.

Yes, most of the new things we do are not going to work consistently right away.

Sometimes they don't work for the first few tries, and then we tweak it a little and it goes.

Sometimes it works the first time, doesn't work for ten more, and eventually we completely change what we're doing to get it going again.

How we handle it depends on what kind of bench scientist you are. There are different kinds of people doing science (even if diversity could be considered an overstatement for some variables). Seems to me there are at least 4 different kinds of bench scientists.

1. Follows a protocol and it generally works.

These people are good at taking directions, even if they don't always follow them to the letter. They will often 'interpret' the protocol in such a way that makes it work, but they won't tell you that when you get the protocol from them. They might not even realize they're doing it. If you ask them why they do something a certain way or if a certain step is necessary, they sometimes have a rationalization, but they usually don't know.

They don't consciously vary their approaches or generate new ones.

However, they tend to get a lot done, so long as their project involves just cranking out data using mostly established methods.

2. Golden hands.

These people can make anything work. I can't say I've ever worked with one, but I hear they exist. According to legend, they have a deep understanding of fundamental concepts and can apply these to any problem on the fly, generating new methods as they go.

Personally, I'm not sure if I believe in the Myth of Golden Hands. I have certainly worked with some people who were very good at some things, and who knew their limits. If you needed help with something outside their area of expertise, they would tell you who else to ask. I guess this lowers their chances of exposing what they don't know.

I think this is smart- knowing your limits is important, even if people call you a "genius", enough failures will make people question that label.

Alternatively - and I have seen this - they themselves do not actually have The Golden Hands, but their wife (it's always the wife in this scenario) does.

Sometimes people know that it's actually the wife doing all the work, and sometimes they don't. It usually becomes obvious when the wife leaves her post as Supportive Tech to get her own PhD, or stays home with a new baby.

3. Sloppy struggler.

The sloppy struggler does not take good notes, so even if something works, this kind of person has no idea how to reproduce the result. They know how to do a few things, maybe because someone showed them repeatedly and they practiced a lot, but they aren't good at following protocols and they don't understand the basis of what they're doing. If something goes wrong, they're lost. They tend to extremes: either refusing to try any new methods, or trying new things all the time in search of one that works. They sometimes try to ask others for help, becoming leeches and pests.

Most of us go through this as a stage in training, but some never leave it.

If this fails, they refuse to ask anyone anymore and become secretive and paranoid.

Many of these people end up becoming PIs, because what they lack in bench skills they make up for by
a) working harder than anyone else, or at least putting in more face-time at the bench
b) charming the pants off the boss (and anyone else within range).

These are the ones who are later tempted to fake data or lie and say something has been reproduced three times, when it only gave the desired result once.

4. The bedrock.

These people often end up as career techs or lab managers, if not PIs. They keep all the lab protocols, they remember the history of where the techniques came from; what worked and what didn't. They troubleshoot because they don't have golden hands, but they are only willing to struggle for so long before they try to find an expert or co-worker to help them brainstorm other approaches.

They will usually take the time to show you how to do something, but usually not more than once. They will happily answer your questions, so long as you're not rude about it. They will say "I don't know" when they don't know, and nobody accuses them of having golden hands, because we all know they struggle like normal human beings do at the bench.

They often spend large chunks of their careers getting new projects off the ground, although the projects don't always work out and they don't always get credit for it. Without these people, science would not exist.

Eventually they all retire or leave academia to follow their spouse or take care of a dying parent. And then all that lab memory is lost, leaving behind the protocol books. If this person was the lab manager or career tech, they also leave behind a completely helpless PI.


Having defined these categories, then, how do these different types of people deal with failures?

Follows a protocol tends to just repeat and repeat, assuming any problems are their own fault. There's a certain humility and patience here to be admired. But if that fails for long enough, they eventually will be called to the PI or the bedrock, since their sudden lack of consistent productivity will be noticed.

Golden hands, if such people exist, would presumably not need to ask anyone to help them troubleshoot. According to legend, everything they do always works, so they would never find themselves in this scenario? I guess if by some stroke of fate they ran into a problem they couldn't fix immediately, they would ask google or go back to their textbooks and figure it out? Secretly go find someone else who knows better? My guess is that they'd be most likely to drop the project, to avoid looking stupid. They would be most likely to declare that "it doesn't work" and most people would believe them.

The sloppy struggler has a serious case of insecurity, but they deal with failure by banging their heads against the problem. Eventually, if desperation peaks, they might make an effort to get organized; if they do, that usually prompts growing out of this stage. The sloppy struggler is usually his or her own worst enemy at the bench, and everyone else's enemy in the lab. But this often isn't realized until it is too late, particularly if the person has that lethal weapon of charm on their side. If they can get someone else to help them (by choice or by PI mandate), they will often exploit that person into doing their work for them.

The bedrock is used to failure, might have been a sloppy struggler or a protocol-follower in their earlier days. They pack it in for the night, go home and look some things up, maybe ask their friends over a beer what else they should try. And then they try again the next day. Failure is taken in stride; it's part of the job.


Obviously, this is oversimplified for the purposes of analysis. Most of us have some of these characteristics, and deal with failures in more than one way. A lot of it depends on environment.

In the best scenarios, The Sloppy Strugglers would learn how to keep a notebook early on, and learn some humility about how to ask for help while respecting other people's time, and then much of the danger would be averted before it begins.

Follows-a-protocol would be taught to ask questions, forced to understand every step of their protocols and why they're doing it that way. This could build a good habit for the long-term, instead of just blind obedience.

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At 2:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting breakdown of bench-characters. How do you see yourself? I'd take you for a bedrock from your blog. As for the Golden Hands - O Yes they exist. It will for ever remain a mystery how they get their stuff done. I wish I was one. Hell, I'd settle for Bronze Hands. Right now I don't think I'll ever get beyond the Struggler phase (minus the Sloppy, I'm a Bedrock if not by output). I don't see myself every being sorry for not pipetting anymore.

At 6:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Which are you?

At 7:44 AM, Blogger Robin said...

One of my colleagues has Golden Hands.

It is frustrating.

At 8:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is funny and probably accurate. I'm not in bench science, but my partner is a PI in a bench science field, so I hear alot about "the lab". It seems to be populated with a couple of bedrocks, 1 follow-the-protocol (appropriate when learning I think), and the rest are sloppy strugglers that cause an enormous amount of stress. My partner has such a deep knowledge of the fundamentals, I imagine she had to have been a bedrock/golden hands. Would also explain why she's had the success she's had.

At 1:56 PM, Anonymous Successful Researcher said...

Interesting classification!

At 5:38 PM, Anonymous ds said...

Thanks for the good characterizations. For some reason, the difficult & important projects were always given to me, both during graduate study & postdoc, and now also in my real job. Maybe, if an experiment does not work, it is a good skill to 'step back' and think systematically about what happens during the experiment and what variable one can change to influence the outcome of the experiment. If after all reasonable changes it still does not work, it is an equally important skill to know when to stop.

Good luck in your job search.

At 10:58 AM, Anonymous Shell said...

Back when I was in research, I was a bedrock when it comes to dealing with failures. I was the lone bedrock surrounded by followers of protocol during my graduating year.

At 12:39 PM, Blogger Ambivalent Academic said...

I began my larval scientist stage as a FP, with some bouts of SS. Now I would say that I'm more of a struggler (minus the sloppy) with some aspects of FP (assuming that any failure is my fault for sure). I hope I am progressing toward bedrock. Golden Hands seems too much to wish for.

PS - I'm sorry that links to my blog continue to appear for your posts whenever I read here. I'm pretty sure it's Blogger bugging out because it isn't me. Apologies for that.

At 11:17 AM, Blogger Dr. J said...

Interesting how you give all of them negative characteristics in the final breakdown... except the bedrock.

Which one do you see yourself as?

At 8:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have Golden Hands. If it is possible for me to make it work, I make it work. If it is not possible for me to make it work, I stop doing it. I have read all the literature concerning the techniques that are crucial to my work. ALL of the literature. I identify critical variable parameters and optimize them. I determine the factors in the protocol that are irrelevant to the success of the protocol and delete them. I have broad experience such that I can take insights into different technical protocols and incorporate them in new ways when possible and useful. When you watch me work, it seems so easy, and in fact, it IS easy, now that I've figured out exactly how to do it. It isn't magic, it just looks like magic.


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