Guest post by Heather Cassell

Some experiments fail. Despite your best efforts, and especially for experiments that take many steps or a long time to run, you often won’t find out if they have worked until the very end.

Image By Tweenk (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

As I’m sure you can imagine, this is a source of great frustration for a lab-based scientist. So much of your time is dedicated to setting up and running your experiment. Once you’ve made a plan and began the experiment, you have no choice but to blindly carry on assuming everything is fine, before you reach the end and discover whether or not it has worked. If it had then great! You can get on with the important business of analyzing your results to see how they fit in with the rest of your work. If your experiment didn’t work, you need to start the tortuous process of troubleshooting to find out what went wrong.

I have to confess that I enjoy the in between steps, the calm before the storm. There is a certain happiness in not knowing, freeing you up to concentrate on each step of your work, rather than the overall result. At this stage there is positivity and hope that your meticulous planning is going to give you the results you need. This positive attitude can last right up until the results come in, when the illusion can be shattered by the lovely picture of your positive controls and not much else.

So what to do now? Small changes to one of the steps in your process can make a huge difference to your results. Having a good set of both positive and negative controls can be a great help during troubleshooting: if the results show just your positive controls you know the problem is with your samples, if there are no results you know the problem is with the experiment. Now where will I find that error?

It is even more frustrating if you have inherited the protocol, or are trying to replicate one given in a paper. Even worse is a failing in a method you’ve had success with in the past! You can resolve many problems with patience and dedication, but sometimes it’s worth running the problem by someone else just to check you are not making a simple mistake that you have overlooked. Is the incubator at the wrong temperature? Have you added the wrong antibiotic? (Both common sleep deprivation related problems.)

You can spend days, weeks, even months tweaking the conditions of your experiment to make it work. But it is important that you don’t keep going round in circles or blindly repeating yourself, take notes, take a step back or take a deep breath and ask for help! Everyone has bad days in the lab, it’s how you react to them that shows how well suited you are to science.

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The bliss of experimental ignorance, 7.8 out of 10 based on 4 ratings
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