Fear of Failure

Do you see the tiny green film at the bottom of the beaker in the picture above?  This extremely small clump of green stuff is a diatom sample weighing less than 20 milligrams that I need to carefully process and guard with my life for carbon isotope analysis. If I lose any of this sample or ruin a procedure, I will likely have to spend several weeks waiting for a new culture to grow and start over again.

Thoughts that have been running through my mind recently include:
  • What if I lose any of my sample while transferring it between beakers?
  • What if it spills?
  • What if a piece of hair lands in it? (note: things like hair and dust can ruin stable isotope samples)
  • Despite how many methods papers I read, I still feel like I have no idea what I'm doing. What if I dry the sample too long, or add too much acid or completely miss a secret step that isn't described in any journal articles?

Failure and data loss can happen at all stages of the scientific process. Maybe a storm destroys your field equipment, maybe someone steals a field instrument to sell it for scrap metal, maybe a boater decides to move that heavy metal box they found that happens to be collecting your data, maybe your computer crashes and you lose months of data analysis... and maybe, just maybe, the worst thing that could possibly happen occurs: you give a horrible thesis or dissertation defense.

Although science (and academia in general) demands perfection, failure does occur. It's likely the reason why journal articles published in 2010 can be about studies conducted in 1998- some sample was lost along the way and work needed to be redone. As scientists, we are expected to quickly move on from mistakes, learn from them, and start over again, whether the starting over sets us back days or years.

For now, I will hold on to these backup "diatom leftovers" that probably aren't usable but give me a false sense of security.

Grad Students, Scientists and Researchers: What is the worst lab mistake or scientific failure you ever made? What was the strangest way you have lost data or ruined samples? How did you get over these mishaps?


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