Several decades ago, I welcomed a new graduate student to my lab. She had just graduated summa cum laude from a major Ivy League college, and she was as smart as can be. I put her to work on a project with happy anticipation of seeing wonderful results. I told her all about the project, which was to confirm a theory I had that the expression of two genes were linked in way to produce a specific phenotypic outcome. She spent several weeks learning the techniques and quickly mastered them. My technician, who was working with her, told me she was a quick learner, and her lab skills were great.
And then, I heard nothing from her. I asked her how things were going, and she just shrugged. My technician told me she was still working, repeating some experiments over and over, and she seemed depressed. One day I asked her to see me and tell me her progress. She came to my office reluctantly. After I asked her a few questions, she burst into tears. “What is it?” I asked her. “It didn’t work,” she told me. “I can’t get it to work”. This seemed strange to me. One of the secrets of scientific research is that most lab work doesn’t work. Not the first time. But her experiments were using techniques that we had mastered long ago, and based on what I had heard and seen, it didn’t seem likely that she had forgotten to add a crucial reagent, or had made a pipetting error, or set the temperature too high, or anything like that.
So for the next two days, I went over everything she had done in detail. It looked like all the experiments had gone just fine, and the results were clear But not at all what I had been hoping for. There was no correlation between the expression of the two genes and the phenotype. In other words, she felt she had failed because she had gotten the “wrong” answer.
I understood the problem. My student had only just finished a long, highly successful career of learning a gigantic quantity of facts and ideas, and she knew the right answers to any question one might ask her. What she didn’t understand was that when we do research, the right answer is anything that we find out, not what the Professor thinks the right answer should be. I tried to explain this to her, and she seemed to understand, and kept working. Pretty soon, she had found out why the original idea was wrong, and what the real mechanism was to explain the phenotype. I was thrilled, and we published several papers on the subject. But despite this success (and having her name on some pretty good papers), she never really recovered from her disappointment, and eventually left my lab.
I have always said that our educational system is not geared at all to the research enterprise. First, students are taught nothing about failure, which is the most common experience of all researchers. Failure is not a bad thing – it’s an opportunity to learn. When things go wrong, there is a reason. Usually the reason is just that somebody goofed, or the water wasn’t pure enough or something mysterious happened. And sometimes the failure is actually a hidden success waiting to be found.
Once, a postdoctoral fellow in my lab showed me a photo of DNA bands with one of the spots in the completely wrong place. We chalked it up to some kind of experimental mistake. But then we found it again, and realized that this was actually a new discovery – we had found a brand new allele of an important gene, never seen before.
I was reminded of this two weeks ago when I met Professor Stuart Firestein of Columbia University at a workshop I had organized. Firestein has a TED talk that I highly recommend, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nq0_zGzSc8g) and has written popular books on the subjects of ignorance and failure in science. He got the idea for the books and talk from a course he developed and taught called “ignorance”. He had scientists come in and lecture on what was not known in their fields.
In addition to the problem that ignorance and failure are not properly treated in our educational systems, there is, I believe, a profound philosophical and perhaps theological aspect to the subject of ignorance in the sciences. This relates to a deceptively simple question – How much can we know? More about that in a future post.