Why I Suck at Doing Scientific Research – Day 161

Friday 17:17, Ballards Lane, London

It’s finally time for the research project! Yay! No more exotic sounding surnames, theories and years of publication, or number crunching for that matter. For the next few weeks we will be scoping out a research proposal on which I will base my research project that will complete my first year of the MBA.

Although we must not call it a ‘project’. The online literature and our virtual tutor insist on calling it an evidence-based initiative (EBI). I’m still trying to work out what the difference is. I think it has something to do with the fact that the ‘initiative’ is on such a small scale (6-7 weeks) that it hardly can be classified as a research project.

Once the scoping proposal is submitted, we have until early summer to organise our thoughts and approach before starting analysing our chosen topic. I haven’t finished the scoping part yet, but I’d like to cover an aspect of lead generation, perhaps how effective marketing activities are in relation to cold calling. We’ll see.

I’m really looking forward to this part and I guess it will highlight if I’m any good at social science research and if I like it. I know that I’m awful at medical research, having dropped out from my DPhil, mid-way. If I think back at my relatively short-lived life as a research scientist I can identify three top research failures.

I once decapitated a pregnant mouse. For context I was extracting embryos from pregnant mice to study polydactyly and tibial hemimelia, a congenital malformation where the hand has too many digits and part of the lower leg is absent. The most humane way of killing mice is to break their fragile necks using your bare hands, and although I had been trained to do this during the animal husbandry course, I couldn’t stand it. It used to freak me out every time I had to pick up the poor little buggers. One day I decided that I needed an alternative and instead of using my fingers to break the necks of these unsuspecting rodents I found a blunt metal blade. It didn’t look at all sharp, but of course, I was wrong. Swoosh! The head of the mouse was instantly separated from the body and it rolled off the lab bench as the body itself remained twitching for a second. Blood came gushing out of the severed neck like a mini sprinkler. Luckily mice only have about 150 ml of blood so the mess I created wasn’t catastrophic. Yet, it was a very unpleasant experience and I do not wish to repeat it.

I once lost a test tube full of radioactive material. Hopefully nobody from the Karolinska Institute is reading this but when I was doing a summer internship at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research I lost a test tube full of radioactive material. As it so happened, I didn’t close the lid of the centrifuge properly and as the test tubes started to spin around at increasing speed, the lid of the centrifuge flung open and out came hurtling the test tubes. To say that I panicked is an understatement! With the help of a gamma detector device, I quickly found and collected as many test tubes as I could and found all but one. I’ve never confessed this laboratory mishap to anyone, so apologies to whomever found it. I’m sure the quantity of radioactivity was so small that it’s completely harmless!

I was never meant to work as a research scientist. Last but certainly not least and in many ways my biggest research failure of all was my last three months at the Department of Human Anatomy & Genetics at Oxford. When I started my DPhil I was certain that I was destined to live the life of a research scientist. I loved the science, I was absolutely fascinated and intrigued by the inner workings of cells (I still am, by the way). But what I hadn’t quite grasped was that as a scientist you spend 90% of your time in the lab, mixing colourless liquids with colourless liquids, over and over again. Hundreds of times. No, thousands of times. Constantly separating DNA, constantly amplifying it through the polymerase chain reaction so that ultimately it could be run through the gel electrophoresis overnight. Nobody told me that it would take ages to master the skills of doing research. In the beginning I totally sucked at it. I used to forget to put the DNA back on ice, which meant it was immediately rendered completely useless. But I would only find out two days later when the experiment yielded results – or no results in my case. I learnt that I sucked at getting the gel out of the electrophoresis machine too, and I can’t remember how many times that damn gel broke and disintegrated before my very eyes. I struggled, but I persevered and eventually, after a few months, I got better at it. But boy did I hate it… When I told my tutor that I wanted to quit she said ‘I think you have the brains to do this, but you’re heart wants something else‘.


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