Friday, March 18, 2011

When a Project Meets a Personality…Does Success Follow?

The longer my tenure as a grad student, the more and more I realize that it is a total learning experience. It is not enough for me to only learn the intricacies of select HIV/SIV proteins or the phylogenetic trees of viruses, humans and, non-human primates. I must also figure out what type of scientist I am and what type of project is best for me.

As I mentioned in my last post, thesis project #2 died in late August. As with thesis project #1, it was well thought out and based on good data and better ideas. However, things simply did not pan out, think of it as a “miscarriage of science.” The real question is what did I learn?

Sure I increased my depth of literature read, I learned and got close to mastering some techniques in lab. However, the true value of what I learned is that a project has to have a little bit of your personality in it. If the project is not a good fit how can you possibly be motivated to work hard on it, especially since a good project that is a good fit will test a student’s resolve at times.

Some scientists have amazingly good technique. You can say that they pipette excellence every time they change tips. The lab slang for these prodigies is that they have “very good hands.” Someone with hands of gold can get away with smaller more elegant experiments or using very technical assays to create beautiful data. A scientific paper tries to tell a story, it makes life a lot easier when you have beautiful figures to convince the reader your are right. Unfortunately for me my hands are average at best. Admittedly, had either project panned out I would have had to do some technically challenging assays that would have been hard for me to do well.

So, at the end of August I had to ask myself, what then are my strengths? If I don’t have great hands how can I ever hope to graduate? It was at this point that I had to step back and remember what had gotten me this far, the brute force approach. Whether it was my running or studying in college or basically any other aspect of my life I have always tried to outwork or do more then my “competitors.” Why then would grad school be any different?

The new project has a lot of my personality in it. I am a competitive person and we jumped into a competitive area with this one. I see the project as a race against the other groups. Just like running a race, with science there is no prize for second place. I try to work in lab with that in mind. We are also trying to answer a very complicated question; it does not lend itself to very elegant targeted experiments. Instead it requires me to approach question with a sledgehammer and learn all I can from the pieces. What this means on a daily basis is that I need to generate as many mutant viruses as I possible can as quickly as I can.

I have to say I am very happy with this approach and importantly it keeps me motivated in lab. Will success follow, I am not sure, but so far it has been one hell of a ride so far.

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