This I Believe

Dan - Rockville, Maryland
Entered on July 11, 2006
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: science, work

I believe in determination when faced with failure. As a scientist, I develop hypotheses and then test them with experiments, but when the experiments fail (which is normally the case) I am faced with the question, “what do I do now?” Do I continue with more research in the same direction? Do I scrap the original idea and try something new? It is not easy to see which choice to make.

In research, scientists are always confronted with frustration, and hard work does not always produce good results. When I was in graduate school, one of my classmates would say, “When things are bad, they will get worse.” I must concede that he was right. While I believe very strongly in my research, the frequency of failure can drive me crazy.

As a principle investigator of a research group, I tell my group to expect failure, and I like to paraphrase my Ph.D. advisor who always stressed, “When things are actually working in scientific research, you must be very careful that you are not deceiving yourself or misinterpreting data.” I actually rejoice when the simplest and most trivial experiments work, but I make certain my joy is short-lived. There is always more to do in scientific research and future failure is always assured.

So why do I believe in pursuing a scientific career? On a daily basis, I enjoy working with my group to crystallize an abstract scientific idea, then prove the idea experimentally, and finally publish the research. Even though my publications will never be on anyone’s best-seller reading list, and probably won’t even be read by the majority of scientists, that is fine with me.

I believe that with all the challenges of research, even the simplest experiments have the potential to transform our society for the better: certainly not immediately, probably not in my lifetime, and maybe in ways that I will never imagine. Contributing to the wealth of scientific knowledge can influence future generations of scientists long after I am not around, and maybe our efforts will someday be part of a larger solution that improves the quality of life. After this last statement, I probably sound like I am becoming arrogant, but don’t worry – I will now go back to my lab and come up with a new series of ideas and experiments that will likely fail. Then I will be reduced to modesty once again.