Sunday, 26 February 2012

Science in Seatoller

is dedicated to those unlovely twins
staunch supporters that have carried me about
for over half a century,
endured much without complaint,
and never once let me down.
Nevertheless, they are unsuitable subjects for illustration.

A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells, being an illustrated account of a study and exploration of the mountains of the Lake District. Book Six: The North Western Fells
A. Wainwright, 1964

ONE of the perks of life in our lab is the opportunity to attend a lab retreat, where we go away for a few days with our collaborators for both social time, and to share ideas and hatch plans for the year ahead. It is safe to say that this year I did not want to go.

Such is the way with PhDs that progress rides on a sinuous wave of fortune, soaring high for a fleeting, exhilarating moment before crashing to the ground and swirling, seemingly forever, with the tortuous eddies and vortices of disappointment. Emotions, unnecessarily, get caught up in amongst these movements. With each crash morale takes a hit, but with hard work, a lot of luck and often a change of experimental direction, the wave can begin to build once more. The challenge then is not to go along with the movements of fortune, but to surf atop them, keeping afloat for as long as possible.

By the time of our retreat in November 2011, I was drowning beneath that wave. An optimistic and exciting start to the year had slowly been taken over by failure. I had built many useful tools, but experimentally nothing had been fruitful. There are two kinds of failed experiments — those that yield believable results that say the opposite of what you were expecting; and those that yield no results at all, any conclusion being untrustworthy because the experiment simply did not work. Mine, of course, were the latter. I’d had one modest success, which I was presently trying to add to, but in all other ways the year was a write off. I had one final deadline to meet before the retreat, to build a genetic construct, but with only days to go curious anomalies and problems were creeping in, the likes of which I had never seen before, despite plenty of cloning experience. (When I finally got the correct construct a week later, I discovered a fault in the planning that had slipped past all those who had checked it. I had to start again, all because of a single nucleotide.)

To then spend four days in the middle of nowhere, cut off from all means of communication from my wife, while trying to put on a brave face and admit to a year of nothing, was not how I wanted to end November.