I have only vague memories of my first independent experimental project in a lab, working as a research student. I think it was such a disaster that I chose to blot it out of my mind as much as possible. I thought I was made up of all the things needed to make a great scientist: a keen intellect, curiosity, enthusiasm and energy. But I was also impatient, clumsy and maybe a little too confident.
After a breezy reading of the experimental protocol, I started tuning up the instrument to make my first recordings. It was only after four failed attempts at getting the right reading on the instrument that I began to wonder if I had missed something.
I went back to the protocol, my lab mates and my supervisor to ask them what I was missing. Eventually, I tracked down the original 1970’s paper that first wrote about the experiment in detail and figured it out for myself. It took me a week.
Training to be a scientist taught me a lot of things that were intuitive but irrational and not quite scientific. It taught me how to be disciplined in my work. Protocols exist for reason: because they work. But protocols are also limiting and meant to be broken: you need to break out of patterns if you want to discover new ways of doing things.
It taught me how to be patient. If it takes 24 hours for your bacteria to grow so that you can crush them mercilessly and extract delicious stuff from their insides, it will take every single second of those 24 hours and you can do nothing but wait. And if at the end of 24 hours, you do not get the delicious results you expect, you have to go back and try it all over again. Patiently. No cursing.
Working in science twisted and shaped my sense of curiosity as well. I did not just ask questions about my project: why, what and how this utterly fascinating phenomenon of protein folding happened. I also listened to my colleagues and their work. I heard and read about such diverse subjects in biology: what strategies migratory birds use through their incredible journeys to how a small, non-descript sugar-like molecule could hold the cure for disease. While it still overwhelms me to realize that there are an infinite number of things we do not know, I also know that we are always asking the right questions and working creatively, innovatively and sometimes, serendipitously towards finding the right answers.
Talking about serendipity, I only reluctantly admit that I believe in it. As a scientist, I believe (or am expected to believe) that everything that happens in the world around us can be defined as cause-and-effect. If you follow the protocol, set up your experiment perfectly and proceed with passion, there is no reason (rationally) that it shouldn’t work.
But I have been faced with perfect experiments that have failed because of situations that were beyond my control and I am prone to think (irrationally) that sometimes, you need a little sprinkling of favourable conditions (even those in your own mind) to make things work for you.
Scientific enquiry and research is a lot about persistence. It is about chasing down that problem across hills and valleys and sprawling countryside before shooting it in the head. So if you fail once, try again (and again… and again…) till you succeed or stop short of being institutionalized. As Albert Einstein (widely disputed) warned us, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
The most earth-shattering revelation to me as a scientist was: I would not find the cure to Alzheimer’s disease tonight. I had, oh-so-naively, expected that every experiment I did would take us one step closer to creating Nobel-winning stuff. To be honest, it does. Even as a drop in the ocean, it does.
It took me a lot of patient introspecting and talking to a lot of really amazing scientists to understand that all science is incremental. We are constantly building on successes of our predecessors, one piece of the puzzle at a time. And every incredible scientific discovery that has been made is a result of the imagination and persistent hard work of a lot of scientists just like me. It gives me a lot of solace to think I am still on the right track.
By the time I was ready to fly my lab nest I was filled with a gratifying wisdom that only being a scientist could have instilled in me. These fragments of wisdom that I share with you now, I try and apply each day to my life (look out for my next article on this). From the way I communicate with people every day, to the way I systematically bake my banana bread; I attempt to infuse each action with the same exacting logic that my research demanded. I am still measuring results from my subjective experiments on life.
Megha Kishore is the Science Communicator for MindTorch. A biophysicist by training, she enjoys reading and writing about pioneering scientific research. Tweet her @kishoremegha and @MindTorch.