The not-so-fun side of research

Research here at Bigelow isn’t always as glamorous as it may seem. I don’t know if it’s just me, but from an outside look, research seems straightforward and creative and innovative and fun. Of course, this is what I thought before I started doing my own research. Now I’d say it involves a lot more serendipity, determination, and frustration. And confusion. Lots and lots of confusion.

Don’t get me wrong- I love the entire research process. Asking questions, figuring out how to answer them, and then, if everything goes perfectly, actually answering your questions. As a kid, I always wondered how the world worked. As an adult and a researcher-in-training, I wonder that even more. But now I have the tools to explore the world myself.

But research almost never goes according to plan. There are always setbacks and mistakes. Working at Bigelow isn’t like taking a biology lab back at Colby. Nobody in the entire world of science has done what I’m trying to do right now. It doesn’t come with a pre-lab  and straightforward methods and “correct” answers. The training wheels are off, and that’s a good thing.

It’s also a hard thing.

I am extremely passionate about my research. I take great pride in my work and love my projects, so when things don’t go exactly as planned, it’s incredibly disappointing and frustrating. This is a side of science not many people talk about in the public eye. It’s just like on Facebook: all your friends look like they live perfect lives and have perfect skin and are always happy. But your life isn’t perfect, and neither are theirs. Everyone only talks about the good stuff. It’s the same with research. Everyone seems like they’re doing everything perfectly because they only publicly talk about their successes. I do too.

This summer, I helped discovered a gene that’s likely never been observed before in Antarctic bacteria. I wrote a program in 20 minutes to save me and my mentor from manually matching over 3000 unorganized DNA sequences with the bacteria they came from. My mentor and I found evidence for a complete sulfur-eating bacteria community that lives inside the mucus of a sulfur-making phytoplankton!

But you know what else happened this summer? We left out every single one of the irreplaceable Antarctic bacteria DNA samples for the weekend (I went back Friday night on a gut feeling and saved them). We couldn’t get the right amounts of DNA standards after dozens of tries, with different amounts of DNA measured by 3 different people. We still haven’t; we just took the points off the graph. I left the freezer full of years and years of samples slightly ajar over a weekend and everything thawed out (it was fine in the end). I spilled E. coli cells on myself. Experiments failed for no reason.

And sure, I’ve made a lot of progress this fall. But we’ve run into even more setbacks than the summer because we only get two half-days and one full day a week to work on research due to classes. Most of our dive days have gotten cancelled due to weather, which is only getting worse. The seas are so rough lately that I can’t eat the entire day because I’m trying not to hurl the breakfast I shouldn’t have eaten. We sent out 9 different lacy bryozoan DNA samples for sequencing and none of them came back as lacy bryozoans, so we had to completely start over our primer development, which should have been done 2 weeks ago. I almost ruined the new extraction protocol completely today, which would have set us back a month (I fixed it with a little math and chemistry, so all is well).

I’m not just here to complain- in an academic culture that places so much emphasis on perfection, it’s important and healthy to talk about mistakes and hardships. You can learn more with mistakes than when you do everything perfectly. Now I always check my workspace for expensive and/or irreplaceable liquids that need to be put away, and I’ve learned to be more creative with scheduling and experimenting. Thinking on your feet in tough situations is just as important, if not more, than learning the “standard” procedures.

But like I said, research isn’t always glamorous. Sometimes it means working from 7 AM to 8:30 PM, and sometimes it means spending all day cold and seasick. But sometimes it means eating lunch on the beach  or seeing a pod of porpoises at sunrise. Most of the time, it means failing. It means disappointment and frustration. But when I hit that breakthrough and do what nobody else has been able to do yet, I’ll remember why I started down this path.

If this was easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing, right?