Embracing Your Inner Spock: Science, Emotions, and How Failure Keeps us Going
Updated: Jul 25, 2019
“Of course Spock is your favorite character”.
At this point in life, I am a shameless Star Trek fan. When my husband first introduced me to the franchise, I was (apparently unsurprisingly) drawn to the character of Spock.
Spock is a half-human who shares his ancestry with an alien race, the Vulcans. Vulcans are known for their choice to live lives devoid of emotion, driven entirely by logic and reason. Throughout the series, Spock’s character struggles to reconcile his logical side with his emotions in an effort to understand what it means to be human.
As scientists, we have little opportunity to express emotion in our experiments and our writing. The side of us that people often see is our technical and logical side. Because of this, it can be easy to assume that scientists’ personalities mirror their work, which can often be dry and unemotional. But in fact, scientists are emotionally hardy.
We have to be.
I started 2018 hopeful. Right before the holidays I submitted a paper containing over six cumulative years of work done by myself and many others.
One week later, it was returned unreviewed.
You see, it’s not enough to do cool science. In order for it to mean something in the academic world, it needs to be published. While other qualifications are important to being an established scientist, the main currency of academic research is publications.
And I'm not talking about just any publication. Each journal has what’s called an impact factor. So there are “good” journals and “bad” journals. You guessed it. A good journal is like an expensive coffee made from freshly ground artisan coffee beans, while a bad journal is like a quick Dunkin Donuts coffee. Still good, but not as well regarded.
Getting your work published is not just submitting the manuscript and being done. Rigorous scientific research depends on the peer review process, whereby two or three experts in the field review the manuscript and provide feedback about whether your research should be published in that journal and what other work should be done before that can happen. If you’re lucky, that list isn’t too long.
Or if you’re not, it doesn’t get reviewed and you have to decide where to send it next.
To be honest though, this is just another low in a series of extreme highs and lows that is academic research. When an experiment has a really cool result, I go home from lab on cloud nine. Unfortunately, while this can actually make up for many bad days, this happens only about 10% of the time.
A research project often starts with a grant proposal, laid out with clear objectives and expected results. I’ve got a plan that should be easy to execute perfectly now that it’s all laid out. I’ll have a paper in no time, right?
If you’ve been at the bench, you’ve been there—weeks spent trying to get a method to work. Finally, after a month, you change the salt concentration in your buffer and lo and behold, it works! Now, after a month of optimizing the method, you can actually DO the real experiment. Does a month of pure disappointment and frustration get you down? Surprisingly, you’ve forgotten all about it and now you’re the most excited you’ve been yet.
Well, that is until the next week when the actual experiment doesn’t work.
It’s funny how our emotions can really shape our perception of science at any given moment depending on how experiments are going. But it’s those small (or big) moments when something really goes your way that makes you realize how awesome scientific discovery really is. And it’s also those moments that keep us going.
In a world where our careers are based on the novelty and quantity of our research, we have chosen a challenging path. Yet, we continue to ask interesting questions and refuse to let the failures ruin our excitement for scientific discovery.
After all, we’re only human.
If those lows are really getting you down, know that you're not alone. If you have a few minutes, check out this article from Douglas Green. Whenever I am feeling down and out because of failures in research, I reread this to remind me that it's all good.
How do you balance how your emotions affect your perception of science? Share your experiences in the comments!