We're a little crazy, about science!

The first one

Ever look up an answer in the back of the book? The problem with research is there’s no back of the book, but typically when you do an experiment you can at least glance at research surrounding your work and make sure you’re not going completely off the rails. Because I like to make my life unbelievably difficult, and because I don’t like taking small steps forward, I’m going to (hopefully) be the first to do a few things this year. But it’s not as glamorous as it sounds.

If all goes well, this year will be a banner year for my research efforts. We’re talking high quality work here. The problem is, even when we do the experiments, there’s no promise that what I find will be correct. Not that it will be wrong exactly, but incomplete maybe, or I could make an error somewhere and I would never know. While we have some rough guesses at what we’ll find, there’s still a whole lot that we don’t know and that’s the problem when you try to make a leap instead of an incremental advance.

I prefer the leap, it’s high risk, but high reward and it has its advantages.

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been spending the bulk of my non-experiment work time crafting things for the upcoming (hopefully soon…) experiments that we’re doing on the hospital side of things. Those experiments are going to be some of the more nerve wracking because, in theory anyway, the dataset we create from this effort will be highly sought after, so making sure we get as much out of it as we can will be important if we don’t want another lab to leapfrog over us using our own efforts.

That puts me in a very awkward spot because I’m one of a kind. At least in the lab. No one knows how to work with the data I’m going to be collecting but me. Meaning no one will be able to competently evaluate my findings until we either, find a collaborator that knows the field adjacent to what I’m doing, or it goes to the journal reviewers. Since the projects I’m working on for both school and hospital are one of kind (for now) no one is more qualified to work with this data than I am. That isn’t bragging, that’s just damned scary.

I don’t want to say the PhD proposal will be low stakes, but compared to making claims in a journal paper and having the world scrutinize what I did, it feels way lower stakes. Plus if the PhD stuff doesn’t go according to plan, well no harm, I still do my dissertation and we learned that “super secret technique” just doesn’t work. Thankfully I’m 99% confident that on the hospital side, “big idea” will work. I would say 100%, but that feels like setting myself up for failure.

The catch on the hospital side is that since we’re doing this for the first time, there isn’t equipment for what we want to do. I’m literally hand making everything from scratch and scraps. While I enjoy making it all, it’s a terrifying thought that I could be one bad solder joint away from ruining the entire experiment. In short, there’s a lot of things that can go wrong and no way of knowing where we went right, or even if we went right.

I’m very excited about the possibilities, but at the same time, there’s a lot of unknowns that make it very stressful. That’s the problem with being the first, there’s no way to know if you were right until others try the same thing. This also highlights the importance of reproducibility and why you should never trust a single study as truth, instead it should be used for guidance.

It’s going to be a good year if we get all the data collected, but it may be a couple of years before I know for sure if we were right or not.


2 responses

  1. The joy of working without a net! I’m familiar with … maybe a cousin of this feeling. The flavor I get in industry is less “I can’t look up the right answer to this question” and more “I can’t look up how to make this system perform.” Testing will determine whether the final result is right or not (assuming the chosen tests were comprehensive enough to find all the bugs … gulp), but how to get there is the question. I can ask more experienced people for help, but it’s not as if they have the answer in their back pocket either; they just have a deeper well of ideas for things to try. Sometimes it does get scary. In paid work it feels like too much responsibility, and in unpaid work, it raises the fear that I’ll hit a wall and find out I’ve wasted all my time.

    Somebody has to be the first one, though. Somebody has to take the risk of failure, or none of this would get done. It may be stressful, but I still find it glamorous. Maybe I think it’s more glamorous because it’s stressful.

    Good luck, colleague mine. Be brave. (I know you will.)

    Liked by 1 person

    March 16, 2022 at 1:59 am

    • From our previous talks it sounded like you had similar experiences, I’m glad you can relate. It’s a little terrifying! Especially when you’re paid to do cool (but working) stuff. I’m hopeful it will turn out and I do enjoy attempting the pioneer role.

      Fingers crossed!

      Liked by 1 person

      March 16, 2022 at 10:10 am

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