The Adaptability and Perseverance of the Scientist

Amy Bauernfeind
“The first year graduate student in my lab thinks his Nobel Prize is coming next week.”---“She has had a tremendously successful graduate career, successfully maneuvering her way from failure to failure.”
By Amy Bauernfeind
June 04, 2013

Wise senior scientists recently made these statements to me, and I bet that most people with scientific training will get a laugh out of both quotations. The first statement suggests that some people, even those just embarking on a career in science, think that science is easy – that one good experiment stands between you and the highest echelons of achievement. While there is nothing wrong with youthful optimism, an expectation this high is guaranteed to fail!

A recent blog I stumbled upon notes that the scientific process is typically, and incorrectly, taught as a linear process: state a problem, formulate a hypothesis, conduct an experiment, analyze data, and draw conclusions. As a result, the expectation of many young scientists is that once they begin their own projects they will proceed in this orderly trajectory. And when things don’t play out so smoothly? This linear model of scientific research ignores some of the most important aspects of scientific success: continual monitoring, reassessment, and readjustment. While we plan ahead and try to foresee problems, our science doesn’t always cooperate and the road through the scientific process can take many, many detours.

The second statement highlights what we know as scientists: problems that we face in our research are inevitable. Each of these roadblocks may seem like a bit of a failure, but they are necessary steps in the process. It is not these ‘failures’ that are important, but rather how successfully we recover and adapt. Unforeseen problems must be anticipated, and a scientist’s skills will allow these obstacles to be overcome and the research to continue. Adaptability and perseverance are the bread and butter of the scientist’s toolkit.

This topic has been on my mind because of my own recent trials on the research front. An aspect of my work hadn’t turned out as I had planned, and I was left humbled. As a good portion of a graduate student’s life is consumed by his or her own research, it’s natural to take these hiccups in one’s own research as personal failures. Take a deep breath. More difficult problems have been conquered before!  While I have learned many things while in graduate school, the ability to recognize problems, adapt, and forge ahead have been among the most difficult lessons. Likely, these will also be the most enduring.