July 29th, 2019

Michael Graphic 2
Succeeding at Failing
By Michael Meleties

I’ve never had a failed experiment; is that because I’m the smartest person who’s never made a wrong move and deserves all the awards?

I’d love to believe that, but I think it actually comes down to how you respond to perceived failures. Failed experiments can be defined as experiments that do not meet the proposed objective. I’d postulate that the broader objective of each experiment is to continue gaining knowledge, so as long as something has been learned, the experiment is by definition a success.

This even holds true in something as mundane as setting up a dialysis bag. Dialysis is used to separate molecules in solution, using a membrane which is clipped at both ends, forming the dialysis bag. I’ve dropped dialysis bags (they’re slippery!) and even lost samples multiple times in my work. While I was frustrated with myself for not being able to accomplish something so simple and thought I was failing at doing this, what I eventually realized is that with each “failed” attempt I was actually learning what works for me in setting up dialysis. It started with setting up a boat to catch any dropped sample, and towards the latter stages I felt out more efficient ways of holding the bag to prevent slippage. Over time my entire set-up was optimized so that everything was where it needed to be when I made dialysis bags.

Dialysis is a small task that is common in protein engineering labs, so how does that make me a successful researcher? It doesn’t. The success is found in continuously learning from each attempt. I can think of countless experiments that haven’t gone the way I wanted them to when I first did them. However, I can’t think of any that I didn’t learn from.

I believe that this persistence and resilience is one of the cornerstones of research. If there’s one takeaway from this posting, I’d want the reader to re-evaluate their perceived failures and see them for what they really are: minor successes leading up to the big one!

Michael Meleties

I’m curious, what are some of your successes? Tweet me at @m_meleties