Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Mistakes were made

We make mistakes. Just look at a search for GIFs using the keyword "mistake". Its worth it.

When you are a graduate student, and you make a mistake, you think its the end of the world, or at least the end of your career.  When you are a PI and you make a mistake, you think maybe its Monday. And you take a deep breath and figure out how to correct it.

To help early stage researchers gain some confidence, it might help if more established researchers point out their own errors, to help put your own trials in perspective. So, in that spirit, here are some of my greatest hits. Or should I say my worst misses? As I go through the following (incomplete) list, keep in mind two things: first, these were excruciating at the time. Second, despite them I managed to get a job, get tenure, get awards, and generally do the various things we consider "success" in academic biology.

So, at the risk of deep self-loathing and embarrassment, here are my top 10:

1) Unexpected design flaw 1:  When I was an undergraduate, I did a senior thesis on how drought-stress differentially affected hybrids between two species of willows (Orians et al 1999 Canadian Journal of Botany). I reared hundreds of willows in a greenhouse on the roof of the Williams College biology building. The greenhouse was necessary so I could keep the rain off the plants, to carefully control their watering schedule. But, there was no greenhouse large enough. So, I built one. On the roof. I made it out of electric conduit pipe and plastic sheets, at the suggestion of my advisor Colin Orians. It was lightweight, and about 30 feet long and 20 feet wide. Basically, it was a parasail. So, one day early in my experiment a big thunderstorm came up. Actually, there was a tornado that day just a bit south in Great Barrington MA, which is highly unusual in that neck of the woods. Where I was, it was really really windy. You see it, right?  The greenhouse becomes a great big sail, and wafts off the building in a gust. It ended up blocks away, almost downtown.  #oops  The plants got more than their fair share of water. Luckily, that happened to be one of the rare days when every plant was scheduled to get watered. So, I just had to clean up and build a new greenhouse, this time out of 2x4 wood beams, bolted to the brick wall of the building. Lesson learned. And when the next thunderstorm came, I got to watch my greenhouse dance and thrash but stay safely in place. Which is lucky, because it was much heavier and would have done real damage had it flow away and landed on something.

2) Youthful exuberance: At the end of the willow experiment, I had to wash the dirt of all the root balls to weigh below-ground investment. The hose was on the ground floor. The willows on the 4th floor roof. Maybe it was the 5th floor. What's the fastest way down? Gravity.  So my friend (freudian typo a moment ago, I wrote fiend) Brian Spitzer and I dropped them, one by one. Well over 100 large potted plants. It was AWESOME. And dropping them loosened the root balls up, making it easier to separate the soil from the roots. But when we got down, we realized (drum roll) that there was now a very large quantity of potting soil covering the biology faculty's parking lot. And there was no question where it would have come from and who was to blame. #oops

3) In the zone: In graduate school I dissected many hundreds of stickleback and made careful measurements of their morphology. To pass the time, I listened to every episode of This American Life. It was kind of meditative and relaxing. So much so, that I once worked for 5 straight hours, forgetting I had to TA a discussion section for Genetics, taught by the very severe Les Gottlieb, who many grad students were afraid of. I got along well with Les, but...  this was not okay. He very calmly told me I messed up and suggested I get up in front of the whole class of 300 and apologize and offer to meet anyone who needed to catch up, whenever they needed to, for the next few weeks, as penance. It was mortifying to stand up and own my mistake in front of the whole crowd, many of whom were just a couple of years younger than me. But I did it. And to this day I carry that lesson from Les Gottlieb: we all mess up sometimes. Its not good. But we can compensate if we own it, apologize, and fix it and then go an extra leg to make up for it. And really, that's the point of this post. But if you want to keep reading, there are more funny and (for me) embarrassing examples, ending with a big one (literally) that went viral on Twitter.

4) Escape!  I did a project in graduate school using experimental evolution with Drosophila. I had a dozen or two large tupperware cages, each about 0.5 * 1 meter long, with a plastic lid that I sealed shut except to change trays of media. One day I realized a lid wasn't sealed well and a few flies had gotten out. Just a few, not enough to end the study. But they found a supply of apples that were stored in a neighboring office. The office belonged to National Academy of Science member Thomas Schoener, who some people fondly called "Conan the Ecologist" for his weight lifter's build. The flies reproduced, as flies are wont to do. He came back from a trip to find HUNDREDS of fruit flies in his office. And, like the potting soil from the willows, there was no question as to the source. He was not happy, to say the least, and I was mortified. I apologized in a long carefully-worded letter, and in person. And now we collaborate. It was terrifying but ultimately okay.

5) "Bolnick's Folly":  I have had a few experiments fail. My favorite is what my students call "Bolnick's Folly". I did a study in the mid-2000s documenting a pair of highly connected lake populations of stickleback, one large and one small lake joined by a short channel that fish easily passed through. It was a great system for studying migration-selection balance, and I thought "maybe I could prevent gene flow", and then track evolutionary divergence, then resume gene flow and watch the populations collapse again. Unreplicated, but uniquely cool test of migration-selection balance in the field. I still kind of want to do it. So, a tech (On Lee Lau) and a middle school science teacher (Tania Tanseem) and I spent a week of back-breaking labor installing a carefully designed fence to prevent gene flow, made from a combination of mosquito screen (prevent fry from moving across) and fencing and fence posts and lots of hardware. We installed it, and it looked clumsy but effective. A year later, however, I learned otherwise. The mosquito screen (multiple layers for safety) built up sediment. Water that would have flowed through the channel built up, and the pressure bent the thick metal fence posts right over in the middle. When we arrived the next spring, the whole thing was shredded and bent and destroyed. I just had to curse, then laugh, then clean up and move on.

Planning to experimentally stop gene flow through this channel between two lakes

Gene flow stopped

Gene flow resumed

6) Retraction: Here's the most painful one, really. I made a mistake in my R code in 2007, when I was first learning R. It made me think a result was significant, when it was definitely not. Basically I calculated (1-P) when I meant to calculate P. I published it. Then in 2016 someone said they couldn't replicate my stats (I had made the data public). I shared my code with him, and we together found the error. I instantly retracted the paper, and wrote a blog about it. That stimulated others to blog about their own retractions or publication errors. The whole experience turned out to be good, because by being honest and open and apologetic people thought it was a great example of how science should self-correct. I got lots of compliments, and even had an article about me in Wired magazine. But this one I don't laugh at. I still wince and shy away from it, but force myself to acknowledge it now and then, like the ancient mariner recounting his albatross (I hope everyone gets the literary reference, if not, go read the poem for cryin' out loud).

7) Denied: Another painful one. A prospective postdoc and I worked hard together to write an NSF grant to fund them (no, I won't reveal who or their gender even). I was busy so I left more of the fine details in their hands than I might have normally done, but the future postdoc was so incredibly organized and effective. I was really excited & confident. But when we finally got the grant submitted just before the deadline, the news broke: we had made a small red-tape error in how we budgeted for a collaborator (we had them file as a co-PI, whereas this RFP required that they be a subaward). The grant was returned, and in the year before we had another opportunity to apply for this RFP the prospective postdoc took a different position. (PS, if anyone wants to go in with me on a grant proposal to fund you as a postdoc, I have a mostly written proposal!)

8) Denying. As Editor In Chief I accidentally sent someone a decision letter meant for another author / paper. I immediately caught it, emailed them (before they even saw the incorrect rejection), and at my suggestion they deleted my mistake without even reading it. Apologies were accepted in good humor, and all was well.

9) Mistakes were made. I just moved to the University of Connecticut. UConn just started a brand new online purchasing system. New PI, new system, what could possibly go wrong. Well, I set out to purchase some supplies for our cell culture work. I put together the shopping list, and filled the cart on FisherSci online, and proceeded to checkout. Everything looked right. About $2,000 total. Okay. Then I moved the FisherSci cart over to HuskyBuy to pass it on to our purchasing folks. I thought it was moving through the system, but it turns out it was waiting for some information from me. A few weeks later I discovered that it was delayed waiting for me. I went to fill in some info (commodity code, delivery location, etc). And somehow, the 1 case of 10 ml, 1 case of 20 ml, 1 case of 50 ml pipette tips I wanted were turned into 285 cases. Of each. Some several times over. As best as I can reconstruct, 285 is the commodity code for research supplies. Somehow that got swapped with the number of cases. Not sure how. But whatever or whoever is to blame (maybe me, maybe the software, maybe gremlins)... I got an email saying there were 4 pallets of supplies waiting in the hall outside my lab. If you don't know, a pallet is one of those wooden squares. 4 feet on a side. These were overhanging with boxes. Hundreds of cases. 12,000 pounds. And apparently something like $14,000 worth of goods (not what I double-checked when I finished filling my cart). That was nearly a half million pipettes. Each is about a foot long. That's about 150 kilometers of pipettes. I could more than lay them end to end across the width of the state of Connecticut.

When I got in and saw what happened, my many years of mistakes kicked in: the panic subsided. There will be a solution. I emailed the FisherSci rep. To their immense credit (earning my long-lasting devotion), they are processing the return and refund, except for the few boxes I actually wanted. Panic turned to pragmatism turned to humor. My postdoc Lauren Fuess and I were laughing about this non-stop. Then I posted this picture on twitter, and the whole thing went viral.

There were some really fun GIFs to go with it.

The best part of going viral with an embarrassing mistake, is that people come out of the woodwork to tell the stories of their own crazy embarrassing mistakes. At the end of this post I provide a sample, just to drive home the point: anyone can make a big mistake. But it takes strength of mind to get pragmatic and fix it, apologize, and move on. So to you younger scientists: don't panic about your mistakes. Just fix them, own them, and move along.

10) I've not yet retired, so I'm sure there is a doozy to put in here sooner or later. They say we learn from our mistakes, and that's (mostly) true. But I, for one, keep finding new and creative ways to screw up. But that's life, and I'll just move on. Or, if it happens close enough to retirement time, I'll just go out of the field in a blaze of embarrassing glory.


  1. Your Drosophila accident reminds me of the time I went grocery shopping, then went on a flight leaving my car in the airport parking lot. Got back from my trip, opened my car door, and WHOOSH! It was like a horror movie: a seemingly endless river of fruit flies came pouring out of the open door. Turns out I had left my groceries on the back seat; mostly they were fine (a six-pack of soda, etc.), but the bunch of bananas in the shopping bag had done Bad Things. The car was buzzing with fruit flies for quite a while afterwards, and it smelled like rotten bananas until my wife totaled it several years later. Good times.

  2. As a teenager I kept amphibians in glass tanks in my bedroom. Frogs and such need live food so I bought a big bag of maggots from a fishing supplies shop to raise into adults to feed to the amphibians. Once I got them home I set about organising some containers and sawdust so that they could pupate and emerge. In the meantime the maggots were in a plastic bag and of course they needed to be able to breath. So I pierced some holes in the bag, then went off to do other things. An hour later I hear screaming from my bedroom. My mother had gone in and found maggots EVERYWHERE! It was like a scene from a horror movie! They were on the floor, crawling up curtains, on my bed..... I hastily rounded up as many as I could and put them into the (maggot-proof) container, but by then hundreds had burrowed into the carpet. Where they pupated and emerged at regular intervals for the next few months..... The frogs were well fed though.

    Then there was the day I dissected the head of a large porbeagle shark in the bath...nah....that's a story for another time :-)

  3. I too listened to every episode of This American Life while doing tedious lab work in grad school (processing hundreds of zooplankton samples from Lake Michigan).


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