Commitment to Research: Navigating Roadblocks in Research

We are sad to see the summer research season draw to a close! In this week’s blog post, let’s look back with the Dahl labs on how the summer went. 


With the conclusion of our summer research season, Bart and I like to look back at the progress our students have made. At the beginning of summer, we always set rather lofty goals to accommodate the best-case scenarios of research, and of course, we never fully accomplish every goal on the list. However, as somewhat seasoned researchers we celebrate the wins, learn from the losses, and plan the next phase of our research programs.

image019That’s our perspective- but how do our students feel about their work? After all, they are the hands that carry out tedious procedures, the minds that are sensitive to every bump in the research road.

Though our students enjoy research and usually continue working in our lab until they graduate, they sometimes think that “nothing worked,” “we made little progress,” “I didn’t get anything done.” Much of our work as PIs is about coaching students past the obstacles that every researcher experiences, and maintaining the perspective that we will always learn new science when the best-laid plans fail. After all, we could never endorse careers in science if research was nothing but failure and frustration. Here’s how we keep our students moving forward in the face of common lab ailments.

“Nothing worked/we hit a roadblock.”roadblock

We frequently receive this report from students that are relatively new to our lab. Fresh from their first- and second-year classes (where the hands-on lab experiences are designed to build critical lab skills around “experiments” that are virtually always successful), a student will often become very frustrated by the first failed experiment in the research setting. Here are a few other manifestations of “nothing worked:”

  • Didn’t the PI design this experiment well enough? Yes, to the best of my ability. If   the process was fully developed, I probably wouldn’t do research on it.
  • Is my brand-new starting material bad? Sometimes, but not nearly as often as        students like to think.
  • The instrument is broken. It seems to work fine with this other analogous sample…

I remember when I suffered from the “nothing worked” mentality as a grad student. I vented to one of my committee member. After patiently listening to me chronicle my every failure, he offered this:

“When the experiments don’t work, the root cause is either the science or the scientist.”

For faculty, these sorts of concerns can be frustrating, because you know that there are many, many possible reasons why things went wrong, and you have a good roadmap for troubleshooting these issues. The new student, of course, does not. They will often come to a dead stop, or they will speculate wildly on an unstable foundation of science. I like the latter scenario because it tells me that the student is attempting to solve their problem independently, and they are drawing upon material learned in the classroom (three cheers for high-impact teaching practices!). Independent thought is a great thing, though it’s best to reel everyone back to the basic science before unauthorized experiments creep into your lab. On the other hand, when students come to a dead stop, they might just need to see you get in the lab and carry out the work in a confident manner, talking them though the work and the science behind it.

“…when students come to a dead stop, they might just need to see you get in the lab and carry out the work in a confident manner, talking them though the work and the science behind it.”

I remember when I suffered from the “nothing worked” mentality as a grad student. I vented to one of my committee member. After patiently listening to me chronicle my every failure, he offered this:

“When the experiments don’t work,

the root cause is either the science or the scientist.”

Cold, right? Not really- this thought stayed with me for the rest of my career, and has carried me through many failed experiments. I decided that I would rather invest my time in understanding and developing the science, and I strive to instill this attitude in my students: when you commit to research, you are committing to a life of learning and scholarship. Failed experiments can be a good thing. I’ve found that they force me to re-examine my approach, and this often leads to the identification of critical experimental parameters that would have otherwise remained overlooked.

“Progress is so slow”turtle_slow

 This statement is a bit more optimistic, as the student has recognized a few successes along the way. It’s easy to underestimate the timeline for project completion. I once thought this was mostly an issue for the new researcher, but a recent exchange that I had with one of my students made me realize how slowly we move towards long-term goals.

I explained that yes, I was quite happy… especially because we just tried an experiment that I had thought of seven years ago.

20141209-tayo-00322-default-mediumWe were looking at a recent sample on the TEM, and I was quite excited. We were having a good day with the scope, and looking at an entirely new type of nanomaterial. My student thought I was simply happy to see a new, exciting result. I explained that yes, I was quite happy… especially because we just tried an experiment that I had thought of seven years ago.

Seven years ago. I’m pretty sure that I once pointed to that particular task as a shorter-term goal. I further explained that although we just passed a milestone with a long history, my group completed many, many more experiments along the way that I didn’t even think of until the need arose. This is why the pursuit of long-term goals doesn’t get stale: research never follows a linear trajectory. It meanders and evolves, sometimes taking us to dead ends, other times carrying us to even better, more creative work than was first envisioned, and always forcing us to learn so much more than ever expected.

“I didn’t get anything done.”

Oh, really? Not if you were working in my lab. You did a tremendous amount of work- you synthesized molecules, you created new nanomaterials, you learned how and when to use different types of microscopy, you performed some advanced spectroscopy, and you can run a Langmuir trough in your sleep. But maybe you’re still plagued by the thought that you didn’t really accomplish anything, and you spun your wheels all summer.

The retrospective view of a research project highlights just how much ground was covered on the research road, and often leaves students thinking about the next experiment to be completed.

jt_ncur-mediumThere’s a great fix for this problem: tell other people about your work! Give a talk at a local symposium, prepare a poster for a conference, or, best of all, assist your professor when they are drafting a new manuscript. The retrospective view of a research project highlights just how much ground was covered on the research road, and often leaves students thinking about the next experiment to be completed. Every time we chronologically finish a research chapter, in the forms of a conference presentation, a final work by a graduating senior, or simply the end of a summer research season, the students always find themselves looking ahead to the next big goal, proving to themselves that none of the research roadblocks encountered along the way ever really existed. There’s always more to be done, whether it’s in my lab, in graduate school, in a job, and difficult moments in science will never stop the committed scientist.

Every time we chronologically finish a research chapter, in the forms of a conference presentation, a final work by a graduating senior, or simply the end of a summer research season, the students always find themselves looking ahead to the next big goal, proving to themselves that none of the research roadblocks encountered along the way ever really existed.

 


Dr. Jennifer Dahl and Dr. Bart Dahl are associate professors in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Our students broke almost nothing this summer.

 

2 comments

  1. Many research projects, especially in the early phases when routine issues are being sorted out (experimental protocols, purification methods, etc.), are fraught with failure and roadblocks. Yet, these often provide the best learning experiences and the most satisfaction later on when the project enters a more mature phase when loads of useful information are being gathered. In these later stages, a new crop of students often remarks, “How could this have been so difficult?”, not fully appreciating the project pioneers who figured out the most efficient way forward. Learning to deal with failure and roadblocks is a valuable life lesson in science.

    I typically view experimental projects in three phases: (1) selecting a good set of study objects, and working out methodologies to extract useful differential data; (2) once methodologies are routine, exploring the study objects by testing as many critical hypotheses as possible, gathering tons of data; (3) mopping up and telling the story, disseminating significant, defensible conclusions. This cycle could take 3 years overall, and students may drop into these projects at different phases. Each phase has its own character and challenges. Resilient pioneers love #1, worker bees will like #2, and good writers who revel in recognition will like #3.

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  2. Fantastic post. Too often the “it isn’t working” blues takes over. We tell them it is ok or point out the strengths but I will have them read your post (and Roger’s reply) to lend a new voice. Thanks for sharing.

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