When a good experiment goes bad
Weeks of planning. Thoughtful discussion about the variables. Finding the perfect way to set things up. We ran tests, we collected pilot data, everything was ready, or so we thought! The thing about running an experiment is that you never know what will happen, especially when it’s the first time you’re doing it. Even though we tested the equipment independently it wasn’t until we were doing the actual experiment that the problem immerged. Never fear though, the story has a happy ending.
It was me. I was the subject for the experiment and after yesterday (here) I was already incredibly stressed out by the prospect of having to walk into the experiment without any prior setup. For the record I arrived 5 minutes before our scheduled start time. Basically I was running blind and had to trust that the basics were setup when I arrived. Thankfully we have help in the lab now so when I got there, most of the stuff was ready for me. My Co-PI and I agreed that I would be the first subject for the experiment for several reasons, but one of them was for stuff like this. It will get easier as the data collection progresses, but the first time is always awful.
So keep in mind at this point I’m stressed, exhausted, and just want to get this going and over with. This experiment involved electrical stimulation and fun fact I can take the stimulation pretty high for the most part. So that worked in our benefit for the experiment too since the higher we can go with stimulation the better our result will be (in theory anyway). Everything was going great and we were ready to start, but after the first trial (of ~10 or so), I realized the experiment was a failure.
The problem with collecting electrical signals (EEG, EMG, etc.) is that when we apply an electrical stimulus it will show up across our recordings. This wouldn’t have been an issue, but one of the things we were doing was applying a constant electrical pulse that completely and totally obliterated any and all of the data we were collecting. The experiment was doomed to fail and while I should’ve realized the issue before we got started, I had not even thought about it. Weeks of planning and it didn’t occur to me that there would be an issue here. Sometimes it’s the most basic things that screw you.
Well chalk this up as another example for my learning is sneaky post (here), I text my Co-PI about the issue and he comes to the test lab to discuss the issue and figure out a workaround. I propose a solution to our problem and explain why it will work, why it will fix our problem, and why it’s actually the better experiment. Frankly when he proposed this experiment this was what I had envisioned as the protocol. He approved and that’s the story about how I changed a protocol we spent weeks coming up with in a matter of minutes.
I didn’t think anything significant happened, it was just a discussion and some serious problem solving. However, after my Co-PI left the room our research assistant who’s been with us now for ~6 months said the whole conversation went over his head. Let me just say it’s nice to be on this side of that conversation because for what feels like forever I was the one saying nothing was making sense.
Now I feel like a genius spinal cord researcher. Okay, not really. My first reaction was I had gotten lucky, but it really is nice to get some examples of how much I’ve learned since I started in the lab. It’s been a learning experience and for the past few years it was painful. I messed things up, asked the wrong (well dumb) questions, and I couldn’t keep track of everything I needed to keep track of. It was a mess. I still have nightmares about some of the stuff that I did because I just didn’t know any better.
Learning is a journey, one that I’ll be taking for the rest of my life. I don’t ever expect to know everything about my small sliver of a topic, really a tiny portion of a small sliver, basically nothing in the space my topic takes up. It’s humbling, but things like yesterday remind me that even though I don’t feel any closer to the invisible finish line that is my PhD or even being an “expert” (whatever that means) on my topic, I’ve made progress.
That’s the trick when you’re looking at a goal so far away. Even though you’re making progress it doesn’t look like your goal is getting any closer it until you’ve almost hit it. That’s probably something a lot of us could do to remember when we feel like we’re stuck.
Since it feels particularly appropriate to say today…
Until next time, don’t stop learning!