Dealing with setbacks with some help from the Wizard of Oz

I was nearing the end of the second year of my PhD and feeling at the prime of my academic career. I’d spent countless 24-hour working days running experiments (a side effect of studying circadian rhythms), I had a sleeping bag permanently under my desk and was already BFFs with the local Döner delivery guy. I had spent the larger part of the past two years becoming convinced that prenylation (the addition of hydrophobic molecules to a protein) is a major part of the time-keeping mechanism in cells, and I was on the fast lane to proving my theory to the world!

And then, one sunny day, the unthinkable happened.

I was casually consolidating a sequencing result for the RNA I had collected from my cells at peculiar hours of the day and night, when I found an error.

A big one.

A HUGE one.

The Excel sheet I received from the sequencing facility had incorrectly labelled columns. This essentially meant that I had spent countless hours quantifying garbage, which had given rise to hundreds of statistically significant transcripts (i.e. up and down-regulated in a circadian pattern) and a lovely, parsimonious idea about prenylation to wrap it all up.

After reanalyzing my data, it turned out that only a single RNA transcript was statistically significant (rather than 500 :/), and that a large portion of my PhD data was crapola, along with my glorious hypothesis.

Needless to say, I was devastated.

When I told my supervisor the news, with tears in my eyes, he gave me some good advice which I think that anyone doing a PhD should keep in mind. He told me to go home and watch “The Wizard of Oz”, because whenever we have a setback, we need three things – a heart, a brain, and a lot of courage.

A heart

Have (a lot ofself-compassion.

Instead of punishing yourself, take it easy and blow off steam. My own prescription was a glass of red wine every night for a week. For you it might be a Netflix marathon, yoga, or maybe taking a few days off to go on a short tripBasically, chill out. I also took some comfort in the fact that, at least this time, the mistake wasn’t my own doing.

This definitely doesn’t mean that you should torture yourself when you make mistakes! But what you should do is grasp at any source of self-compassion that you can find in a given situation. I’m also lucky to have great colleagues to cry to (and, eventually…joke about) the situation with. Sometimes they share their own horror stories and assure me (however much I have trouble believing it at the time), that I will overcome it.

And as may also be clear from my story, I’m also fortunate to have a very supportive boss. I know that this might not be the case for everyone, and if it isn’t – I’m sure you can find people outside the lab to endure some whining.

A brain

We are scientists after all, so why not subject our own life to rationalization and draw logical conclusions and solutions to the problem. One lesson-learned is to always be skeptical about your data, especially when a task is outsourced. Don’t assume that just because a routine task is given to a professional it’s always going to be one hundred percent accurate. Double-check when you can and reserve a tiny bit of skepticism for surprising results.

That being said, accept that you can’t control everything. Being skeptical does not mean that you should automatically mistrust all the data that you’re given! If something takes a few minutes or hours to consolidate – do it. If it takes longer, you will just have to relinquish some control and be optimistic.

As for being skeptic of surprising results, only do this as long as you don’t become a pessimist. Be excited about an unexpected finding and don’t automatically assume it’s an artifact – just double check and try to consolidate it with another method.

After some more rationalizing, I also realized that it’s kind of lucky that I found the error in time, otherwise I might have had my name on a paper with false data. I may have lost a few months of work (and a hypothesis), but I spared a lot of my scientific integrity. “Phew…what a save, sometimes you just need to see the falcon as half full!”

Courage

One of the most important things I learnt is that we shouldn’t get too stuck on our hypotheses and have the nerve to admit when we’re wrong.

It’s important to have an idea that drives your research in a clear direction. But when the idea doesn’t seem to fit, and continues not to fit, you need to abandon it and move on. It’s amazing to be able to predict something and be right, but research isn’t about us being right, it’s about it being right. And anyways, now you can get excited about starting a ‘new’ project.

Overall it was a tough week for me, but…

Who am I kidding? I love my job, my colleagues, my boss and my one significant transcript! There’s no such thing as a dead end – there is always another way to see things and a clever way out (maybe even better than the last one).

All we need is love, a fresh outlook and a lot of courage to change direction.

Good luck with your PhDs everyone.  No one said it would be easy, just remember to keep moving forward!

Sinem Sertel

PhD candidate, Neuroscience, University Medical Center Göttingen (UMG)

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