According to Plan
How facing and conquering obstacles makes us better scientists
Many people I talk to at MIT have high expectations for their first year. They’ll ace their classes, breeze through teaching, and have two publications by the time they are a second-year student. A sixth-year student I met, however, summed up reality: “If there’s one thing I learned in grad school, it’s that things never go as you plan.”
When I joined my research group in November 2016, I expected to make good progress in lab. I would learn how to run the spectroscopy experiments, finish up a project with a fellow graduate student, and start my own work by the summer of my first year. Maybe I would even have a paper by the end of my second. Wow, was I ever wrong.
The first obstacle came soon after the holidays. I found out that the postdoc who was teaching me how to run the experiments was searching for a job and could leave the lab at any point in the spring semester. I didn’t know how much time I would have to learn from him before I would become responsible for the spectroscopy setup that he built, and that worried me. To make things more complicated, I was assigned to teach a lab course, which took up a lot of my time and made it much harder to shadow him. By the summer, the postdoc had left the lab, and my advisor, who was busy with other things, understandably couldn’t hold my hand every day. For the next few months, I was left to figure things out on my own. With little experience and anxious about messing up the equipment, I made slower progress than I had hoped.
Things got a little better later in the summer, when I began working with a lab mate to start a new experiment. We needed to change our old setup to run at new wavelengths. We thought this would take only a week or two, but hurdle after hurdle appeared in our path. It took the entire summer to get it ready for experiments. So much for starting my own project.
Finally, in September of my second year, we were ready to start the experiments for my lab mate’s project. Only, it didn’t work. The initial part of the experiment ran great, but at the same time point in each run, we would see an inexplicable increase in signal. We could not collect data until this problem was resolved.
I tried everything to find the source of the problem. I checked the optics, the control box, the detector…everything. Months dragged by, and no solution. Sometimes the problem would go away, and I would get excited, only for it to come back again. Each day, my feelings of frustration would grow. I was never going to solve this problem. We would never finish this project. I felt like a failure.
“Don’t worry, these problems always get fixed,” my advisor would encourage me. My lab mates and friends were also helpful, listening to my struggles and reassuring me that things would work out. Because of them, I felt supported to keep pushing forward in my work.
That perseverance paid off. Weeks later, I had finally traced the source of the problem: a reflection coming from the polarizers in the setup. A huge problem with a simple solution. We eliminated the reflection and are finally able to restart our experiments. We’ll probably run into more problems along the way, but I am optimistic that we can push through them.
Though I may not have gained a lot of experimental results in my first year in lab, I’ve realized that I’ve gained a lot more. Like that senior grad student told me, I now understand that things never go according to plan, and I shouldn’t be hard on myself when they don’t. It is normal to face setbacks in lab. Additionally, by facing this problem in my experiment now, I’ve been forced to learn how every tiny part of the equipment and optics works. I have much more experience working with my setup than I would if everything had worked the first time, and I will use that knowledge as I begin future projects. Finally, it’s taught me patience. As exciting as science is, putting all of your effort into your work with few results is physically and mentally exhausting. Persevering on this project has given me a new confidence. If I can solve this problem, I can solve any problem.
The other day, I saw this proverb in someone’s research talk: “Obstacles do not block the path. They are the path.” At that moment, nothing rang truer in my ears. Perhaps I was meant to face the challenges I came across in lab. Though frustrating, they taught me more than success would alone. It is facing and conquering obstacles that makes us better scientists and prepares us for the future.
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