by MERLIN CROSSLEY
There is a line I like – though the provenance is disputed – “the problem with doing nothing is that you never know when you’re finished.”
The same problem besets most scientific research. You never know when you’re finished, and this means you never know when to celebrate.
To me that is a problem because celebrations are vitally important for forming communities.
Many researchers delight in the fact that every question answered throws up many more questions. It’s like the magic pudding. I’ve enjoyed this myself. When I started, I sort of wondered how people thought of so many new experiments. I could hardly think of one when I was just beginning. But as soon as I took a path, I found it was easy, one thing naturally led to another. The problem wasn’t a shortage of ideas, the problem was prioritising all the possible opportunities and taking the best possible path through the ever expanding maze of questions.
The other problem was that unlike most “hero journeys” there is often no specified destination in science. The destination recedes as you approach, like the horizon, or like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. That makes it vital to celebrate each time you pass a milestone.
There are some regular events in the lab and it is important to be disciplined and actively remember to celebrate them together. Students do arrive, have a first day, and then they eventually get their PhD. Arrival celebrations can be good, but the new students are often a little shy. PhD finishing celebrations can be great but it sort of depends on the examination system.
I like the American and European systems but am less keen on the Australian system. The Australian system is salami sliced up into success by a thousand cuts.
First the thesis is written – hooray. Then it may be printed, soft bound, and submitted – hooray. Then one waits. Then examiners’ reports come back (often from overseas examiners you may never meet) and they nearly always say ‘this is good, but…. please do this and that’ – a qualified hooray. Then this and that is done – to the satisfaction of the original examiners, or the home university graduate research committee, or the head of school.
Another small hooray when the revised document is submitted and a gasp of relief when the university communicates that requirements are satisfied. Then graduations are timetabled – a long wait – and at last – hooray – a graduation and a proper celebration. But one that can be rather formal, involving extended families rather than just buddies from the trenches who have shared the journey.
I don’t know all the different systems across the world but the Americans have a formal thesis defence, in front of departmental luminaries, family and friends. By this time the outcome is not in doubt but the defence is a rite of passage and is marked by formality and theatre. In Europe there can be more energised defences that are more like cross-examinations, and in England the viva can be quite exciting because it can hang on a knife edge and no one knows the outcome. The outcome is usually positive but tough examiners can request a pound of flesh. It certainly isn’t an anti-climax drawn out through multiple stages.
Getting papers published is also a great time for celebration but again it is never one big finale like a marathon runner crashing through the tape at the finish line. It can be nail biting – when you are competing with other labs – but it also comes in stages. You finish the experiments, write up, write the cover letter, begin electronic submission, respond to all the errors and omissions and checklists related to electronic submission, hear the paper has gone out to review, receive the reviews back with a cryptic covering letter and unreasonable comments from reviewer three.
Then you work through the comments, resubmit, and then sometimes like in snakes and ladders, you land on a snake and are back to square one and have to start again at another journal. Or perhaps you just have to make a few more changes and call the editor and you politely discuss the details to death. Eventually an email may come saying that the paper is provisionally accepted – dependent on paperwork, checklists, and formatting. Then when that is done, along come the proofs, and after months, you have 48 hours to check everything via a complicated web interfaced proof reading platform. When you want to celebrate at last, all you can do is rush and then collapse in relief.
There can also be spontaneous discoveries that occur in the middle of projects. These should be celebrated. Suddenly, a solid result emerges and everything becomes clearer – a hypothesis is supported beyond reasonable doubt. These moments might be similar to when the detectives close in on the murderer and suddenly have a prime suspect and compelling evidence. It is exciting and a relief. One has crossed over from having nothing to having something, but something one might lose. So it’s important to celebrate at once and enjoy it, and then do all the many control experiments later. In this way if the controls don’t work, at least you’ve enjoyed a celebration.
Life goes by a little at a time, until we have “measured out our lives in coffee spoons” but there are high points worth celebrating. One can mark the key events – arriving, achieving, and departing, but also each little victory along the way. Doing this brings people together and shares the excitement of success.
So if you get a beautiful Western blot, if a subcloning works, if a piece of the jigsaw puzzle suddenly fits, mark the moment with a cheer. And remember to set up rosters with cakes for lab birthdays, and lunches for whenever someone returns to the lab to visit, arrives or leaves. It doesn’t have to be a big thing and formality is frowned upon in science but in some ways it shouldn’t be – life’s milestones should be properly observed.
Prof. Merlin Crossley