With class about to start, I print 14 Western blot images for my students to discuss. The 3-hour lab is supposed to be the culmination of a weekslong research project in my undergraduate biology course, the day my students determine whether their experimental results support their carefully crafted hypotheses. But the images are all the same—and all full of nothing but background bands. My students are about to have a hard lesson in scientific failure and how to be resilient in the face of it. It’s a lesson I wish I’d learned before starting grad school.
We live in a time where there is an obsession with perfection. The best research is where a team has persevered with a big claim that will change the world, collected flawless data which points to unequivocal results. Right? Not really no. We need to train the next generation of researchers to understand that science is messy and incremental. Null results that find a theory was false are just as important as the successes. The success bias of published trials and journals needs to change.
Research is messy. … Trying to protect students from that reality does them a disservice.
A decade later and with my kids in school, my scientific curiosity came out of hibernation and I restarted my research career. After a stint as a postdoc, I secured a position at a liberal arts college, where I established my own small lab. In my undergraduate classes, I asked my students to complete lab experiments that were virtually guaranteed to yield interpretable data. But after a few years, I grew uncomfortable with the gap between those picture-perfect experiments and my own research projects. Yes, my students left lab sessions with results, feeling their time had been well-spent. But I worried I was deceiving them about the actual experience of practicing science, which rarely produces data on the first try.