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The human touch

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A little empathy goes a long way in the competitive confines of a laboratory, argues Lydia Soraya Murray.

As almost every scientist knows, a person's first year in research is an emotional minefield. One minute you're flying high. The next, you're banging your head against the wall, resisting the urge to draw in results with a marker pen. Forget the F-word; in science, it's the O-word that generates dread. I sometimes think that 'optimizing' should be spelled 'r.e.p.e.a.t.e.d.f.a.i.l.u.r.e.s'.

After a stimulating yet often soul-destroying start to my PhD, I have decided that coming to terms with the lows is one of the most important things that you can take away from your first year. Never mind the dreaded literature review; this is unquestionably more important.

Because scientists do incredibly specialized and often misunderstood work, it can be hard for people outside our particular fields to empathize with our attachment to our projects. I have a close friend who is a physician. After several weeks of my hard work culminated in what can be described only as 'diddly squat', my friend offered these consoling words: “It's not as if someone has died”. To this day, I don't think he realizes how close he came to getting stabbed in the eye with a pipette. Instead of taking bloody revenge, I pointed out that if researchers didn't care so much, he would still be treating head colds with leeches — a less satisfying but more legal response.

Credit: BEAU LARK/CORBIS

Unfortunately, voicing frustrations to colleagues can be just as futile, and prompt the short and not so sweet response: “That's science”. To be sure, cultivating a career in the frighteningly competitive world of research leaves no room for hand-holding or mollycoddling, and I truly believe that principal investigators need full-body elephant-hide transplants to achieve the thick skin required for the job. However, we are all human and everyone needs some sort of coping mechanism. Losing this mechanism is always a disaster.

In truth, there is no magic answer for how to deal with a disappointment rate of 90%. Some people build up walls to protect themselves, but this can result in suppression of all emotion. And let's be honest: given the hours that scientists work and the wages we earn, it is mostly our passion that keeps us chained to the lab bench. Dulling the rare moments of true toe-tingling excitement when things work and we discover something for the first time would be far too big a sacrifice. But others might have quite a different attitude and feel the disappointment so acutely that it destroys their confidence and paralyses them. Channelling your emotion into something manageable is truly important. I suggest that anyone new to research should find healthy ways to deal with their frustrations. Some people read or play a sport; others go out dancing. My coping mechanism is a large glass of red wine and a fantastic group of friends who put up with my rants, then shut me up with a good dose of perspective and insight.

Humans are social animals, and sometimes solitude enhances the feeling of ineptitude and makes dealing with a disappointment even harder. Maybe next time someone wanders past you gazing forlornly at their lab book with that oh-so-familiar look of puzzlement and frustration, a wee pat on the back and a bit of camaraderie might help. Yes, 'that's science'. But perhaps they'll see that success is possible despite repeated failures.

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Murray, L. The human touch. Nature 478, 145 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/nj7367-145a

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