Nature India | Indigenus

My science failures: All the light bulbs that did not work

Science stories are equal to success stories. Right? Wrong. In thinking of scientists as successful people, many times we often assume that their career paths are straightforward, meticulously-planned and yield positive outcomes. However, things don’t always go as planned. Behind every small success, there’s probably a string of failures — work that did not make it to the curriculum vitae, rejected papers, turned-down applications, declined grants, unsuccessful job interviews, and many closed doors.

Science blooms in these failures as much as it does in the glory of accepted manuscripts, grants, awards and patents. In this blog series “My Science Failures” we will hear some straight-from-the-heart stories of these secret milestones in the lives of scientists — and learn how they turned these events on their head (or did not). You can join the resultant online conversation with the #mysciencefailures hashtag. Let us know at indigenus@nature.com if you would want to tell us your story.

The first volunteer in this dare-to-bare series is Karishma Kaushik, an Assistant Professor and Ramalingaswami Fellow at the Institute of Bioinformatics and Biotechnology, Savitribai Phule Pune University. Karishma shares the ‘failure’ milestones of her career, and discovers a sense of gratitude for things that did not go her way.

Meetali Barhate (Morya Arties), IBB, SPPU

‘I haven’t failed, I’ve just found 10,000 that won’t work’ — Thomas Alva Edison on the invention of the light bulb.

While failure is an integral part of our scientific journeys, we are often too crestfallen to acknowledge and share these stories. But it is these closed doors that force us to consider alternative options and look for unexpected openings. It is, therefore, imperative to talk openly of failures at the workplace and recognize them as integral to career progression.

Taking the initiative, a few members of the academic community have published their ‘CVs of Failures’ or ‘Anti-Portfolios’, which instead of listing successes and accomplishments, chronicle rejections, failures and ‘changes of plans’.

Such open records of career failures help de-stigmatize rejections in academia, and have spurred a discussion on including a ‘failures’ section in one’s curriculum vitae. Whether one decides to publish a full-length failure resume or not, chronicling these difficult milestones for oneself is definitely an invaluable exercise and brings forth unprecedented insights as I realized first-hand.

So, this is my ‘real’ career story.

1. I almost failed my 10th standard History exam: A stellar student through my school years, I least expected to make a dismally poor grade in my 10th standard History exam. Blame it on the exam paper getting mixed up or misplaced, the fact remained that this single score brought down my average grade. This meant that to get into a reputed junior college, I couldn’t get into the exclusive Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics programme, and had to take Biology as an add on.

Little could I imagine that being ‘forced’ to take Biology would set me on a career path as a physician!

2. I never planned a career in medicine: Forced to take up as biology as an add-on, I neglected the subject for most part of junior college. Two months before the 12th standard examinations, I came across an excellent piece of human biology educational material. Those realistic illustrations of the human body fascinated me. I decided to pursue medicine and began preparing for medical college. To this day, I am convinced I must have been one of the last people to fill those medical entrance exam forms!

It has been close to 20 years in medicine and the biological sciences, and with each career milestone, I have only grown to love the subject and my work more.

3. I did not get into a government medical college: I blamed it on my last minute decision to pursue medicine, but the fact remains I did not make it to the cut-off list for a government medical college. I took up a state-subsidized seat at a relatively new private medical college.

It turned out to be a wonderful student phase, where I not only excelled academically but also through my participation in health-related public talk shows and symposiums, discovered a natural inclination for public speaking. Honing this ability to address large audiences has inevitably shaped my career decisions, particularly to seek opportunities that include teaching.

4. I did not get into my top choice of residency programmes: During medical college, I decided on two choices of specialty to potentially pursue, dermatology and pathology. Short-listed for interviews for both at a prestigious medical college in India, I did not make it to the final lists for either. Determined not to ‘lapse’ a year, I took up a residency program in clinical microbiology.

In this programme, I had the opportunity to do a notable piece of research work for my thesis for which I interfaced with basic scientists’. This led me to pursue a PhD in the US. I recently returned to India as one of the country’s few trained physician-scientists. It was ‘denial’ and not ‘design’ that set me on this career path.

5. I was rejected by graduate schools for two years: Moving to the US with my husband, my search for PhD positions coincided with the economic recession of 2008. My rounds of the Bay Area’s top graduate schools left with me with an appreciation for academic science in the US, but also with a harsh realization of the immigration and funding constraints. After two years of close to 10 applications and no success, I decided to apply outside of California, focusing on cities my husband could also relocate to. I finally accepted an offer from a well-known school in Texas. I spent the first year telling myself we would be out of Texas as soon as the PhD was done.

My ‘stint’ in Texas lasted almost a decade and marked one of the most luminous phases of my professional and personal life. I could never imagine myself saying ‘Texas is home’!

6. I did not get into the first three labs I tried in graduate school: I started the first year of my Ph.D. rotating through three laboratories, after which I was expected to find a laboratory to pursue my PhD. At the end of one year, all three rotations yielded no takers, either due to space constraints or the fact that I didn’t have a particular skill set. I petitioned the programme to allow me a fourth rotation.

That ended up being my PhD lab. That also ended up being a wonderful mentorship experience, start of a new research group, a 5 year PhD with five papers, extensive teaching experience, professional independence, and a work environment that supported my choice of motherhood and parenting. To think, I almost did not join this lab!

7. I struggled with the science for almost half the PhD: While I really liked the laboratory I finally ended up in, I found myself completely out of depth with the science. It was interdisciplinary, employed biophysical concepts and developed mathematical models – it was exactly the Ph.D. I did not anticipate. Nevertheless, I persevered at it.

Mid-way through the PhD, I discovered an interesting phenomenon, after which I focused on probing the biological aspects of it, while a talented undergraduate worked on the mathematical models. This proved to be a turning point in my PhD journey, and the gateway to a highly productive remaining stint.

8. I walked out of a prestigious post-doc laboratory: With a very productive PhD stint, landing a post-doc was not difficult. I joined a ‘pedigreed’ research group where the science was cutting edge, and advantageously, in the same city I was living in. Within a month, I noticed glaring signs of a toxic and bullying academic culture. I had seen enough of academia to read through intense-levels of micromanagement, a flurry of to-do lists on a Friday night demanding work over the weekend, and pressure to respond to emails at 4 a.m. This was not normal or acceptable. Fortunately, I had the support system and flexibility to walk out.

The silver lining in this brief stint was that I discovered, in this short span of time, that I had it in me to steer my own research. I believe that this was the best and possibly, the boldest professional decision I have ever made.

As anticipated, making my own ‘list of failures’ was an exercise in introspection. It highlighted the varied challenges I have managed to overcome in this professional journey, and underscored that while there were many things beyond my control, I was able to effectively respond and redirect my career trajectory. Most importantly, looking at these career failures, I discovered a deep sense of gratitude for all the things that did not go my way. I realized that the best-laid plans that did not work actually led me to where I am today.

Revisiting this list will serve as a reminder to embrace the entire journey, its ups and downs, closed doors and unexpected openings, crushing lows and dizzying highs. For, it’s both – the things that work and the things that do not – that shape our unique career stories.

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