A huge component of research is luck, both good and bad. There are lots of great stories out there about how great leaps in science were made by completely accidental discoveries or creations. Meanwhile days (or weeks or months or years) worth of research can be wasted on a dropped sample or an animal that gets sick or a microwave.
I had today all planned out. I would dissect spinal cords from younger frog embryos in the morning for one experiment, and then in the late afternoon I would dissect spinal cords from older embryos for the second experiment. The first ones went beautifully. The second group just never developed enough. So I’ll try again on Wednesday when we have new embryos. But there go all my meticulous plans for my work this week.
This time flexibility is something I both love about research and find incredibly frustrating. Even in grad school, you’re largely your own boss (okay, some people may laugh at me for saying that). But depending on your actual boss, oftentimes you get to set your own schedule. If I really want to go to a talk at 11am on Thursday, I can probably shuffle around my schedule to do that. If I really want to get some work done at 3am on Sunday morning, I could do that, too (I don’t anticipate that anytime soon though, haha). But sometimes your embryos (or whatever it is) will take all your beautiful plans and utterly destroy them*.
However this luck can also be heavily moderated by what you do with it. Last week I had a really unlucky day that included one slide being completely destroyed when I dropped something on it; another being rendered useless because I put on the wrong concentration of the protein I was using; and three slides having cells that just didn’t grow for some reason. Well it meant I didn’t get to do any of the experiments I’d wanted to with those cells. But I imaged one slide anyway. Now what I expected to happen (because other people have done this before) is that I would add a neural repellent, and the growth cones (target-seeking protrusions in developing neurons) would shrink back. I was only doing this to make sure that it did in fact work for me. And it didn’t. Well I talked to my PI (principal investigator=boss) about it, and he brought up the relevant paper, and it turns out I’d been using slightly younger embryos. But at least now I know! So when I redo this experiment on Wednesday, it should work as originally intended! But if I hadn’t used what I could scrounge from that terrible-luck day, I probably would have made the same mistake I had been making.
This moderation of luck with behavior goes for good luck, too. One of my goals as a researcher is to be willing to look into surprising results, and to get the training to do so intelligently. In cell biology, you’re often trying to figure out and describe what happens in living human beings by looking at light released from a protein-that-doesn’t-belong that’s bound to a protein-that-does-belong (but might be impeded by the light-releasing one) in a frog cell that’s been ripped away from most of its neighboring cells and put in a plastic dish for 24 hours with some slightly salty water on it. It doesn’t always work. And the trick is to figure out whether this is a result of the artificial circumstances (and if so, how to get around that in the future) or whether this indicates something meaningful that happens in people too. It’s sort of like trying to understand New York City by talking to a single person who has lived their whole life in Seoul. If the Seoul resident tells you about plants, they might be suggesting the existence of Central Park or they might be telling you about their neighbor’s Korean Bellflower plant. (Did that analogy make any sense?)
*As Douglas Adams wrote, “Hey, that’s just the way the cookie gets stomped on and gets completely obliterated.”