Monday, October 10, 2011

From The Phd Files: You can't always get what you want....

Last Friday I attended the opening of the Adelaide Festival Ideas. As well getting to see a personal hero in the flesh, it also sparked much discussion and thought amongst the attendees. In case you are wondering, my personal hero who was in attendance is Professor Peter Doherty, Nobel Laureate, immunologist and champion of science communication. Alongside Peter was Phillip Adams (another fave of mine), Barbara Hardy and Professor Penny Sackett, the former Chief Scientist of Australia. Penny gave the keynote address of the festival entitled "Science and Uncertainty", in which she talked about the uncertainty of the measurements of science, the importance of a transparent scientific process, and just how perfection is impossible. She also argued we really need to use the evidence we have on which to base our actions, and as the wheels of science keep turning, we can build and improve on the evidence in the never ending process of research and understanding. What followed was a great discussion between the audience, Phillip, Peter, Penny and Barbara, and I walked away feeling honoured that I'm part of the machinery which furthers our understanding of the world, and how science and knowledge and knowledge in all its amazing forms make me feel inspired to be part of humanity.

On a personal level, the concept of uncertainty really hit hard in the last few weeks. Whilst the evening at the festival of ideas made me feel inspired, of late I've been feeling anything but. It's a well known fact that the process of obtaining a PhD is like a rollercoaster - full of the highest of the highs, and the lowest of the lows. The moment of elation when that experiment works cannot be compared to anything else, but the drudgery it can take to get there can just about break the strongest of wills. And PhDs are full of uncertainty - uncertainty about how the research will pan out, where the money will come from, whether you'll get the paperwork done in time, if you'll have a job next year or whether tomorrow you'll log in to your email to find someone has just beat you to the punch and published your scoop, thus downgrading your hard work and revelationary findings to a much lesser journal. This is the nature of the beast that is science, and a PhD is a the baptism of fire into probably one of the most uncertain, but most rewarding careers.

Anyway, a case in point happened to me recently. I went away for a bit over a week - an escape from the lab to refresh, get my head around some statistical analyses I needed to master, and catch up with the family - a working holiday of sorts. Three days in, and just as I'm undoing all the stress and craziness of the last few months, and getting into the swing of country pace, I get a email and a phone call. Turns out, the contractors the university employ are incapable of reading - they shut down the power to the cleanroom, which involved entering said cleanroom in their dirty work gear, pulling all the plugs and leaving. No power for a weekend means no fridge and no freezer keeping things chilled. I got the phone call when my colleague rang me - they had arrived Monday morning to a lab which was akin to a swimming pool. As for the reagents? Written off - enzymes don't like room temp! And even so, it's often not worth bothering with sub-par reagents. If things don't work how does one know that it's the experiment or the thawed out dodgy enzymes?

It turns out the university had forgotten to notify us of the power outage, as they had forgotten we had a laboratory in the building. But they did have insurance - now comes the painstaking task of reordering all the ruined stock and waiting, and dealing with a new ordering system to boot makes this not the most pleasant of tasks. The kicker of the situation was that some of my reagents had just been bought prior to going away, they were unopened, and ready and waiting for the flurry of productivity I was going to launch into when I got back....but as my title tells, you can't always get what you want. Very rarely in science do things go the way you want or plan, but as the song goes, you sometimes get what you need, and in the process you get more interesting results and learn a few lessons which will make you a better scientist.

So in light of Friday's lecture and discussion, it got me thinking - we have scientific uncertainty in the form of the experimental measure, we have uncertainty about where the next paycheck is coming from, we have uncertainty about whether we can get that publication accepted, uncertainty about the results, and to add to all this uncertainty, whether we can do our experiments at all. Day in and day out, there's uncertainty on all levels in science, and it can drag you down. When I read a paper, I can now appreciate not only the data collection, the analysis but the day to day dealings that have had to be overcome to enabled that paper to get to publication. There's a lot of blood, sweat and tears in a few pages of scientific results, and now I'm living it day to day I've got a another whole level of respect for those authors.

So would I trade the roller coaster of research for some sort of certainty? Never! The thrill of not knowing what results will reveal, of not knowing what each day will bring, or what the next challenge is, that mystery is part of what makes science so great, and why I love what I do. In spite of losing all my reagents, and of the delays, the payoffs in spite all those types of scientific uncertainty are immense - the potential to contribute to the understanding of the world around us, to be part of the scientific machinery, to feel that elation when your paper is published or you see those bands on a gel far out ways the failures, the stress, the tedious moments and the downers. After all, how boring would life be if everything was certain?

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