Every scientist fails and that is okay

Author: Michelle Valkanas, 4th year Ph.D. Candidate in Biological Sciences

I was recently at a national conference where Emmy Award Winning TV Producer Erin Elliott spoke about communicating science to the “masses”. She had just completed a special on Women in STEM and was excited, to say the least. She went on to say that “you people” (scientists) were her new heroes because they “fail all the time”! She was shocked; she just could not believe that scientist fail and are okay with that (like we have any other choice). There were crickets; to the room full of scientists, failure was not the big bad monster that Elliott depicted. Why did this seem like a big deal, as though it were a super power? Here was an incredibly successful woman, who was clearly great at her job (she tells an awesome story and who didn’t love The Tyra Banks Show), but to her the thought of failure was paralyzing.

From an early age, society has taught us that failure is a bad a thing. Failure is defined as the absence of success. No one wants to fail, in fact, synonyms associated with failure include coming to nothing, defeat, and catastrophe. I can’t say that I ever woke up hoping for a catastrophic day, nor do I ever wish for failure. However, failure is natural and sometimes necessary. Nonetheless, the internet is filled with blogs on how to “fix” failure and quotes to help us survive when it does occur.

As a scientist, I have failed, and not just once. Failure is part of scientific discovery, a series of educated trials and errors. The unknown, is, well, not known, and neither is the path to that next discovery. Failure is necessary to tease out the way a system functions or to identify a novel gene or organism. Not all failed experiments provide useful information, however. Sometimes they are a result of human error, inactive chemicals/ingredients, or PCR (the Achilles heel of Biology experiments). In any case, failure is a part of science and though it is not always easy, it is more commonly accepted in the scientific community then elsewhere. Somehow scientists have overcome the stigma associated with failing. The problem is that this is an unspoken phenomenon limited to the inner circles of academia. It is probably because, as scientists, we are simply use to it.

Maybe it is time we own our super power: our ability to quickly learn from our failures and move forward. We as a scientific community need to talk about the importance of failure more broadly, not just to our colleagues as we troubleshoot that PCR just one more time. With so many things to worry about in our current world, failure should not be one of them. If as a community we openly discussed failure, maybe we could remove the stigma and the negativity associated with the word.


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