This past Monday, I had the honor of attending my sister’s Ph.D thesis defense. She’s been on this path since she was in college, but this hour-long talk was the culmination of six years of serious work. We’re talking late nights and weekends in the lab, lots of experimental failures, and plenty of going back to the drawing board. While I’ve followed her throughout this journey, most of our conversations centered around particular events during a given experiment. Monday was the first time that I heard the narrative behind her research and understood how it all fits together.
One example in particular struck me. Early on in her research, she was using metabolic markers to label pieces of RNA and determine their rate of decay (Don’t be scared, that’s about as technical as I can get. Generalities from here on.) She was using a protocol with a specific chemical that, at least in previous experiments, was expected to generate the desired outcome. Yet in trial after trial, the experiment was just not yielding the results she wanted. What was up?
Instead of going in a different direction, my sister asked a question: why did past research use that specific chemical agent? Were there other chemicals that could be more efficient? It turns out, the answer is yes. By conducting her own trials, she found that a different chemical produced more efficient results. The process was so revolutionary that it’s now possible to research the phenomenon in active cells. (Before, it was only possible to do in a petri dish.) By persisting through the frustration and asking good questions, my sister cracked RNA research wide open.
Not everyone is a biochemist or biophysicist, but my sister’s process in handling frustration and failure can be applied to any field. Instead of shutting down in the face of failure, can you take a step back and interrogate “why” your methods aren’t working? Can you shift your thinking from one fixed solution to a different possibility? When we’re able to be flexible and reframe our focus, amazing things can happen. Hats off to Dr. Duffy 2.0! Even though I’m the older sister, you teach me so much.