when hard work doesn’t pay up

“Hard work pays off.” This is one of my trainer’s favorite lines. I’ve heard it so many times that I can hear it in my head like he’s standing beside me. In boxing, this is true, without a doubt. Each week I put in the effort, I see the pay off. A year of boxing has changed the way I think, molded my body, sharpened my reflexes, and has trained me to be a fighter. I am no longer an inexperienced newbie, but a seasoned (albeit, lightly seasoned) boxer. Even over the course of a few weeks, I notice improvements, such that I can hardly bear to watch the fight from four months ago because I’m embarrassed to see how little I resembled a boxer at that time.

The problem with hard work is that it seems it doesn’t always pays off—at least, not the way I hoped it would. Science swept the rug out from under me shortly after the New Year. Back in June, after two years of fruitless efforts, I set aside what I’d been working on and began following up on some exciting results previous lab members had observed. All was going as smoothly as science ever goes. I was just trying to get a quality image for publication when I grew suspicious of something and decided I should do one more control “just to reassure myself.” That control unraveled the whole experiment. I found that those “exciting results” were just an artifact of the technique we were using.

This is not the first time science has hit me with a doozy. Daily failures are something I’ve grown used to, sort of the way one gets used to repeatedly being hit in the head (only more demoralizing because you never really get to hit back). I’ve learned to expect failure in science. I now rejoice even when I’m simply successful at getting a flask of cells to grow, when there is a black smudge in the appropriate place on a blot, or when there are bacterial colonies on the plates that should have colonies (and not on the ones that shouldn’t!). The really painful failures though, are those when I realize I’ve been on the wrong track all along. I look ahead and see the dead end, and I turn around and see how much I’ve wasted getting there. Sometimes it seems like, with science, the harder I work, the less it pays off. After all, the faster you go on the road to nowhere, the more obvious it is that you’re not going anywhere.

This is the reason I was tempted to say that hard work pays off in everything except science. I was bitter and angry about putting nearly three years of work into a project that has given nothing back to me. Then I realized that I have gotten paid for my hard work, but not in the way I’d hoped. Hard work, success and failure in science are actually no different from in boxing—the difference is only in my objective and expectation. If my expectation when I signed up to fight had been that if I worked very hard at boxing for three months, I would win my fight, I would have been one sad little boxer. Come October 2, I would have looked back at those months of sweat and tears (and a little blood) and said it was all wasted. This, however, wasn’t my perspective. I wanted to master the sport, so I worked hard, and I continued to work hard even after I lost the fight. Still today, I put in the time and effort because I want to be a boxer. And, slowly, I am becoming a boxer. Now I can look back and laugh at how I used to throw my fists like superman and how I never blocked my opponent’s punches, so my nose was sore for months. I can be amazed at how effortlessly I move around the ring compared to the way I used to freeze anytime an opponent came at me. Whether or not I won the fight in October was a moot point because my ultimate goal was to learn—not to win. And that is what I’ve done.

At some point during the past year of my PhD, my objective in science changed. I began expecting to see results beyond the huge amount of information I was learning and all the skills I was mastering. I wanted a paper, and I wanted the end of my schooling to come into view. I lost sight of the fact that just a few years ago I was a baby scientist. When I started my PhD, I couldn’t speak the language of biology, nonetheless design experiments, follow protocols, and write up my results. When people mentioned the Central Dogma, I thought this might be a religious thing (in reality, it refers to the process of how the genetic information in DNA becomes a protein). Even just a couple years ago, I had only a vague understanding of cloning—I most certainly had never cloned anything. Now, I have cloned hundreds of bacterial strains. I have taught the Central Dogma to many Harvard undergraduates. I am nearly fluent in biology, I design my own experiments, and I follow detailed protocols.

Remembering that my hard work has paid off—though not exactly in the way I was hoping—helps somewhat to keep me grounded. In fact, upon reflection, I’m sure I have learned more from working on a project that I have grappled with than I would have if I’d been handed a project that was a couple experiments away from publication. In a way, this project has fulfilled the true goal of my PhD better than I could have planned. I admit this with reluctance and a slight roll of the eyes because this doesn’t mean I am not still frustrated and overwhelmed at the thought of back-tracking and starting anew. Nor does this mean that I am not striving towards success in the more traditional sense. I do ultimately want to graduate, and I also would like to publish a paper on my work before that time. Similarly, I’d like to win a fight. I can only trust that if I continue to focus on gaining knowledge, on growing and developing as a scientist, a fighter, and a person, one day I’ll see the returns.

For anyone who has been wondering where I’ve been, I’ve published several articles on another blog called, bitterempire.com. You can find them below if you’re interested:

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