Tuesday, 4 June 2013

The Green (Fluorescent Protein)-Eyed Monster

Is there a formula for scientific success, or do some scientists simply ‘get lucky’?

When in doubt, draw a graph. This is not so much useful advice as a way of life. The pros and cons of various DNA ladders? The best flavour of soup for ten minute incubation breaks? Or the relationship between things breaking and student proximity? Questions all vastly simplified through the liberal application of pie-charts, bar graphs or, in times of great need, 3D scatter plots. In my experience, there are only two things that can't be better explained in a graphical format: cats and scientific careers.

Surely there should be a positive correlation between the amount of effort a scientist puts into their career and the likelihood of scientific success? But, no, instead of a nice straight line with an R2 value of 0.99, I keep getting something that looks like the teeth of a career-eating monster. "Aha," says Reviewer 3, "the author has failed to take an important variable into account: creativity." And, for once, he/she does have a good point. Is there any scientist out there who hasn't entertained the scary possibility that their lack of seventeen Nature papers might just be due to a lack of scientific ability?

But natural talent isn’t enough, and neither is hard work. I still can't get the numbers to add up. There's something else at work here: luck.

An extreme-graphing habit doesn't exactly leave much room for futile emotions such as jealousy. But, when it comes to scientists who seem to get all the lucky breaks, I can't seem to help but daydream about all the terrible accidents that might befall them. Contaminated cultures, ripped protein gels, background on their western blots. I know, I'm an awful person.

Yet luck is something that anyone embarking on a career in the lab needs to consider. With only 5% of early career postdocs progressing to the next level – a fellowship or lectureship – there is the very real possibility that many good scientists are going to find themselves chucked out of the lab along with the out-of-date plasmid extraction kits. Actually, that's not true – no one would throw away perfectly useable consumables just because they are past their use-by date.

Choose a slow-paced lab in which to pursue a PhD, or the wrong project in some cobwebby corner of science into which even your supervisor doesn't want to venture, and your career is already off to a shaky start. In today's competitive scientific environment, no one can afford to treat a PhD as a learning experience during which they can gradually learn how to be a fully-fledged scientist. Yet no one seems to tell you this when you're getting to grips with your pipette.

With the big grants increasingly going to big established labs, the chances of making a real impact during your PhD can depend on being in the right lab at the right time. Pick a mentor who will champion you through fellowship and lectureship applications, and you have the chance to sink or swim on merit alone. And these are the lucky guys and gals that test my composure more than temperamental cell lines. I don’t doubt that they’re brilliant, but it sometimes feels like they've had all the opportunities.

But maybe it's just that they've taken advantage of their fortuitous circumstances, and managed to get themselves in a position where luck is on their side?

We are always hearing how so many of the big scientific discoveries are down to luck. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin when one of his bacterial Petri dishes became contaminated with antibiotic-producing mould, right? Only, what no one seems to mention is that it was Fleming's scientific curiosity (and stubbornness) that got penicillin through the ten long years it took to find a way to turn it into a drug. That wasn't luck that was, um, science.

Much of the work we do as scientists is preparing ourselves so that, when those moments of serendipity strike, we are ready for them. Perhaps the same goes for careers and the 'lucky' guys aren't lucky at all.

No comments:

Post a Comment