Formulas and Failures: A Lab Ethnography

Illustration by Arushee Agrawal

Illustration by Arushee Agrawal

Pre-medical undergraduates in colleges often feel a pressure to get lab experience for medical school and, most importantly, get published. At WUSTL, research symposiums litter the campus, and reading research articles is an important facet of many upper level biology classes. In many research articles, the methods and materials sections are supplementary and placed in the back of the paper in case readers want to read about it later, but the results of the paper are front and center. We never read about what did not work in their procedures, and what missteps they had to adjust. This is understandable, given that science magazines very selectively try to get the most interesting and captivating articles out (a phenomenon labelled the file drawer phenomenon). An exposition on the failures and dead ends that the researchers faced would not be as exciting. However, this leads to a sensationalization of lab research, which many new researchers end up buying into as they pursue working in labs.
This results-based perception showed in Jeffrey*’s expectations as he began working in a neuroscience lab in the heart of WUSTL campus. I interviewed Jeffrey, an undergraduate student majoring in neuroscience, and followed him into a day working at his lab. The lab focuses on working with electric signaling fish to test brain and communication correlation, and other related experiments. When I interviewed him, he had been working there for just over a year. I observed Jeffrey during what he said was a “typical day at the lab” as he sat alone in a dark corner of the lab working on counting cells on two monitors. He works by himself but clarifies that he is friendly with all the members of the lab, and that the lab in general is very relaxed. On other days where more people are present in lab, he usually converses and jokes with other researchers. That day, his work entailed manually counting with a mechanical clicker many stained cells from images of dissected fish brains that he had captured during a prior session. He came into lab around 1pm and said he was staying that day to count all the cells until 5pm, amounting to around 4 hours of very monotonous work. He cuts the boredom and tries to be more productive than he feels by listening to music and multitasking by making new playlists for KWUR, the campus radio, which is another extracurricular he is involved in. This type of dull repetitive work is actually a very major part of working in labs, which many people do not know about when they first pursue researching.
I am surprised when Jeffrey reveals to me that the data that he is currently painstakingly collecting and later analyzing will likely not be used for anything, because he and his mentor had just decided to move onto a new procedure. He had been working on tweaking and perfecting this procedure for close to a year now, but as he collected data, he and his mentor had found there was just too much variability in nuclei density. During this past year, what Jeffrey said he had been working on was “trying different methods to get rid of unknown variables and making things more consistent, by drying samples, letting the solutions sit out longer or shorter, and other procedural factors” (Chan). Each time he changed the procedure, he would go through it to see how it would go, and based on what went wrong or what could be improved, alter the procedure accordingly to go through again. Each run through of the procedure would take around a month, which is why it took such a long time for them to realize that the procedure was not working, and to ultimately scrap it. Jeffrey was evidently very frustrated that he had been working 30 hours a week during the summer and 10 hours a week during the school year for almost a year on this procedure only to have to discard it in the end.
This frustration was in part borne out of his initial expectation that results would be easier to obtain. I asked him if there had been anything he did not expect first coming into the lab, and he commented “When I was first entering the lab, I didn’t really know about the monotony, the mindless work, and the failures in the lab. I think since I only saw the results from papers and posters of labs, I didn’t expect all the tedium and obstacles”. Before entering a lab in real time, the only exposure he had had to research were research articles that displayed labs as sites of efficiency that constantly and effortlessly churned out innovation and discoveries. However, as his overall experiences in the lab have shown, despite the sensationalized image lab research has of churning out results and new discoveries, research is as much about the process and failures that are not displayed in publications and posters.
This new understanding of research as trial and error instead of a straight path to results is inherent to the lab. Jeffrey’s mentors, Dr. Cassidy* and the graduate student overseeing his research Marion*, have both talked to Jeffrey in the face of his frustration about the inevitability of failures in research. Dr. Cassidy explained that research builds upon these failures. Any data we collect, while not directly used in papers, can still act as jumping points to new questions to research and new methods to work with. Jeffrey himself now reconciles his failures by reasoning that his year of research has not been for nothing. He good-naturedly states, “Even though I don’t have anything I could put on a poster, I have learned a lot about problem solving and lab methods that I can later apply to the new procedures I work on” (Chan). He also furthered his budding interest in neuroscience, which he expressed that he had been unsure of pursuing previously, and ended up applying to the neuroscience track within the Biology major as a direct result of working in the lab. Based on the limited view that results and published work are the point of performing research, Jeffrey may have failed; however, based on a more realistic perspective of process and learning, he has attained a lot of resilience, critical thinking skills, and a newfound passion for neuroscience.
This idea of process-focused research is reflected in an almost lax nature to the lab atmosphere, in that many of the student researchers develop their experiments separately, and there are no hard deadlines. There is no concrete time that everyone has to come into and leave lab by. Jeffrey mentioned that he does not think of his mentors as people he has to be on his best behavior around. They were people who guided him in his own experiments, but they did not act as his bosses in terms of enforcing deadlines or supervising him to make sure he stayed on task. Jeffrey also specified that he enjoyed the friendly and noncompetitive atmosphere of this lab. This general atmosphere came about due to the awareness that all of the members, or more specifically, the undergraduates, that were working in the lab were working primarily for their own learning rather than to push for a publication. If they did not come to lab on time, or was lazy in their work, they were only hurting themselves and their own self-improvement. Due to this mindset, failures are forgiven because progress is a very personal process in this lab.
In this campus based setting, the image of published concrete results as the goal of research was subverted and the process of learning was recognized as a new goal. Jeffrey’s inability to produce results were not seen as failures but as necessary steps to be able to rule out certain techniques and procedures. This further establishes that in truth, groundbreaking discoveries are not the only goal in the lab, but that the process of finding what works and just as importantly, what does not, is also considered results in research. However, it would be interesting to see how this same story would play out in highly paid corporate research laboratories, where results are far more important and are primarily what the researchers are paid by the hour for.

Ji-Yun Suh is a sophomore. She can be reached at

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