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My science failures: Get up fast after each fall

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 if you would want to tell us your story.

Divya P. Kumar, is an Assistant Professor and DBT-Ramalingaswami Fellow at the Department of Biochemistry in J S S Medical College, Mysuru, Karnataka. As a young investigator, it took courage for her to talk about failures. But her belief to ‘do what’s right, not what’s easy’ saw her through this exercise in soul searching.

Divya P. Kumar

“Success is a public affair but failure is a private funeral.”

Failure is an integral part of any career path, but the irony is that one doesn’t dare to speak of it in public. We admire reading or watching stories of successful people who have failed at some point in their lives but are reluctant in accepting and overcoming our own failures. Fortunately things are changing and the world has started appreciating that it’s okay to fail rather than not trying, or quitting.

In the scientific world, we are more acquainted with failures than success – be it in experiments, grant proposals, job interviews, manuscripts or lab management. It is therefore important that we discuss failures, appreciate the attempt made and importantly, support each other to iron them out. Accepting failure is an integral part of career development.

My work is still in progress in terms of building a career path as a scientist. This blog piece is my humble effort to say out aloud to every research scholar, postdoctoral fellow or young investigator who has failed:  “You are not alone”. All scientific failure stories appear alike whereas success stories differ in their own way. I say this because while reading someone’s scientific failures, we often relate to them.

Science just happened

I never dreamt of becoming a scientist. Growing up in the southern India city of Mysore in Karnataka, the professions of choice were engineering or medicine (thankfully, it has changed now). Though I was interested in engineering, I did not make the cut in the entrance exams. I chose to study biotechnology.

During the great economic recession of 2009, I moved to the United States with my husband. My application to a graduate school got rejected. It made me realise how competitive the scene was. It also made me appreciate the importance of participation in summer research programmes, workshops, conferences, publications and extracurricular activities that count along with the regular academic requirements of the graduate programme.

Not losing hope of a PhD, I started volunteering in the lab and soon took up the job of a project assistant. The hard work paid off and I had a first-author publication and then got enrolled into a graduate programme.

All this happened while I was working in two different labs, the first one being a bitter experience because of micro-management by a rather insecure leader.

The PhD roller coaster

I decided to opt for a different lab for PhD. However, having one published paper, one co-authored manuscript in press and another first-author manuscript in the works, it was a tough call to leave the lab and start all over again. It was a structural biology lab and I had realized within one year that it was not my cup of tea. Setting up crystal trays needed a lot of patience and stamina (and I admire those in the field for that). I also had limitations with my knowledge of physics. It would perhaps have been easy for me if I put in some effort to get familiar with the work, the people and the ambience but I listened to my heart and got ready for the next challenge.

PhD was challenging. The research work demanded key expertise in islet isolation from mice as also working with mice and human islets in vitro. This expertise was not available in the lab. So I had the great opportunity to collaborate with scientists from a different University. Earlier, my first publication had been accepted within 3-4 days of submission in the journal Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications, something I realised was a rarity. I got to taste the reality of PhD, struggling with the new expertise I had to master for nearly half a year. This was the best period of my PhD as I learnt how important mentors and their support are. I also learnt the life skills of troubleshooting, perseverance and patience and of loving one’s work despite uncertainties.

Managing a lab

Setting up a research lab and a team marks the beginning of an exciting phase in the career of all young investigators. It is challenging and does require management skills to build and run the lab effectively. Having realised this, I set up a new research team with academic values and good lab culture. As everything was falling in place, the two research scholars quit – one was selected for a government job and the other for her personal reasons. I had heard similar stories, but your heart breaks when it happens to you.

The time and effort invested at this initial stage of establishing your career seem to have gone to waste. However, I did appreciate the interest of the research scholars and their personal journeys.

I got back to the drawing board with renewed energy and inducted new research scholars in the lab. The exercise was humbling and taught me that ‘sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together for the best to happen’. We are just a couple of months into the new set up and it seems promising so far.

Being a young investigator, listing these failures in my scientific career took some courage. This introspection gives me a sense of pride for not letting failures break my self-trust. I have learnt from from them to go with the flow, re-envision my goals and seek inspiration from others. In the end, I have always believed in doing ‘what is right than what is easy’.

More in the series:

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


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