• Question: On your journey to being a successful scientist, did you have any impactful failures, and if so, how did you stay motivated to be where you are now?

    Asked by thiru1 to Thiloka, Ryan, Nina, Lorena, Kate, Anabel, Ambre on 17 Jun 2019.
    • Photo: Nina Rzechorzek

      Nina Rzechorzek answered on 17 Jun 2019:


      Great question – not sure I would describe myself as ‘successful’ yet, but I have been lucky to progress in my career and have the chance to work on what I am most passionate about.
      I think one of the biggest challenges was being shortlisted to the very final stages of a grant bid and then not getting the money. This was heartbreaking because by that point, I had invested nearly two years of my life working towards that goal. However, I was also very aware of how competitive the scheme was, and that there was a fair chance of not being awarded the money. One of the things you learn quite fast in science (and life) is the importance of having one, two (or several) contingency (‘back-up’) plans. Because the stakes were high, I made sure I put in more than one application for funding, and although one body eventually turned me down, another was very enthusiastic about what I was trying to achieve and they awarded me the money I needed to do the research which felt amazing! What really kept me motivated was having ownership of my research question – a question that I had developed and refined over several years following my PhD and I was confident would ultimately attract funding – it just needed to be pitched in the right way. This ‘grantsmanship’ takes a long time to get the hang of – and no one ever really masters it but lots of practice has certainly made my applications better over time and you can learn a huge amount in the process, even if not successful.

    • Photo: Kate Timms

      Kate Timms answered on 18 Jun 2019:


      When I was in uni, I was originally going to do a year in industry (that means a year working in a lab for a company or charity or research council) between second and third year. However, most of the places on offer were in Germany and I didn’t feel ready yet to up and move to a new country where I didn’t speak the language. So I opted to wait and try to get a placement in the UK.
      Only one was available, and though I interviewed for it, they could probably tell that I wasn’t really interested in the project and I didn’t get it. It meant that I had to change my plans and stay at uni. But it actually turned out to be great. I got to do a project and uni that I loved (that wouldn’t have been available the next year) and I met the woman who would end up being my masters supervisor and PhD supervisor! Without that setback, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

      I’ve also had a grant (funding to continue my research) turned down, which was… awful. But I kept on going. You just have to believe in yourself and your research and remember that you’re helping people and the world be a better place. If you believe that, then that’s all the motivation you need. Well, a good holiday helps too!

    • Photo: Lorena Boquete Vilarino

      Lorena Boquete Vilarino answered on 21 Jun 2019:


      I have failed so many times I can’t even remember all of them! My PhD was a bit hard, I started doing bioinformatics without any training and managed to freeze an entire server because of an error in my script, accidentally deleted a few files which my coworkers were using (we had backups but they were earlier versions of the files… not fun to rebuild them!), messed up an analysis and got very awesome results which turned out to be false… All of that in the first 2 months! When I started doing work with cells in the lab I contaminated my cells and lost months of work, part of my protocol was wrong and I didn’t realise until after 8 months of failed experiments… There are many many other failures which meant I impacted other people or I significantly delayed my experiments. Not great!

      I stayed motivated thanks to my family and friends, who made me realise that everyone fails at things , and that my failures are necessary steps to learn! Every time I fail at something now I just look at what I can learn from it so that failure is less likely next time 🙂

    • Photo: Thiloka Ratnaike

      Thiloka Ratnaike answered on 24 Jun 2019:


      Hi Thiru, great question! I am not sure what impactful failures are, but I guess it means setbacks which cost time and effort to me. With that definition I would say yes, there have been several of these setbacks, especially during my PhD where time was not on my side because I needed to complete the PhD in 2.5 years in order to get back to completing Medicine! So any setback meant I needed to put even more energy into completing an experiment successfully in less time! The motivation to keep going wasn’t always there, and at one point I called my mum up and said ‘I don’t think I can finish this you know’…and she basically told me that ‘quitting’ wasn’t a word in her vocabulary! I also had lots of support from my other family members and now-hubby. I also didn’t want to fail in the eyes of the university and really admired my supervisor at the time, so didn’t want to let him down. I guess I am trying to say that strong role models as well as a great support network helped get me to where I am now. A little bit of stress helps focus the mind too (not too much stress though) 🙂

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