by MERLIN CROSSLEY
When I first began doing molecular biology at the bench I heard the quote attributed to Thomas Edison – “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety nine percent perspiration” and I sort of liked it – I didn’t feel I was a genius but I was ready to work hard. I soon discovered I had not really appreciated how many routine, menial and repetitive tasks were required.
I was genuinely surprised. I had been taught and had read so many stories of great scientists and I now realised that I had only seen the successes. No one had written or made films about the drudgery, the false leads, the routine, careful work. The information wasn’t hidden though – I did know that Charles Darwin had collected data for years before putting it together to explain evolution. I also knew he worked meticulously on barnacles and worms.
I was also aware that Alexander Fleming had discovered both lysozyme and the importance of anaerobic bacteria earlier in his career, and had not just got lucky by serendipitously seeing a spot of penicillin mould killing bacteria in his petri dish – he was a prolific and hard working researcher. Then Chain and Florey worked for years to develop techniques for producing therapeutic quantities of penicillin. I even knew that Kary Mullis’s sudden invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) had actually already been conceived by Gobind Khorana many years previously – so the controversial Mullis really was the “exception that proves the rule”. Science really is mostly perspiration.
But none of this really prepared me for what doing science at the bench was like. I thought it would be mostly thinking, arguing, probing ideas and developing theories but I soon found people saying – “that sounds good, why don’t you prove it?” Then I realised proving some of my theories would take years and I suddenly learnt the skill of prioritising.
Nevertheless, some ideas were worth pursuing so I got stuck in, ready for the ninety nine percent perspiration – and then I made another discovery. There is a strange and magical pleasure and pride that comes from doing routine tasks well. Happily, I rather enjoyed repetitive mindless tasks.
This surprised me too. I had seen talent and creativity celebrated so much that I had some how not appreciated how satisfying slogging through and doing routine things well can be. I found making mini-DNA-preps satisfying, patching out yeast colonies onto various media rewarding, I liked setting up plates of PCR reactions, and my favourite was running four gel shifts at once, all perfectly set out so that a full figure for a paper emerged if the experiment worked.
And gradually, I realised other people were suited to this routine work as well. I would sit in the lab with fellow students and we would fill tip boxes – and people described it as “therapeutic”. It was rewarding because the progress and satisfaction was exactly equal to effort put in. This is not the case at all when it comes to “paradigm shifting” theories in science, but it is the case when it comes to routine knowledge advancement – systematically surveying and cataloguing knowledge, pushing the frontier forward inch by inch. I think it is sad when journals and grant reviewers deride “incremental progress,” it is precisely the progress on which most science (and evolution) is based!
The good thing for me is that both my PhD and post-doctoral supervisors also seemed to like the routine bench side of scientific life and prided themselves on both the art and the craft of experimentation. I am not a natural craftsman but was able to focus on the tasks and gradually became proud of doing the little things well. Being at the bench is a great training in terms of developing ‘attention to detail’ and technical perfection. In the lab now, we still celebrate beautiful gels and other images that are produced, while I also encourage people to post the occasional disasters to Twitter handles such as Western Blot Facts – where the pain of technical failure can be shared and mitigated.
My serious point in all this is that we celebrate cerebral intelligence a great deal and we also, perhaps increasingly, seek to foster it and test for it. But actually, many of the most important things in life depend not on being innovative but on being reliable, not on being quick but being there for the long haul.
I bet there are others who, like me, enjoy constant gardening, lawn mowing, hedge clipping, and path sweeping and are better suited to it than to being landscape architects like Capability Brown, and they also have a place in science. And when we think of our syllabuses and try to remove the rote learning, we should remember that testing people’s ability to push through the hard slog, and to endure the long and unglamorous game of behind the scenes perspiration is also important.
But most of all it is satisfying. Not everyone can come up with the insight of evolution through natural selection, or develop a light bulb, but everyone can make progress and do the little things well. Doing this and inching the world forward very gradually while being part of a like-minded community that also cares about incremental progress can be very rewarding indeed.
Professor Merlin Crossley
Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic