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Saturday, September 18, 2021

Column: Science fail

I’m an amateur scientist. I work in a lab with nematodes (tiny worms), where I deny my English major and pretend to be at home among the test tubes and microscopes. In a recent gesture of good faith, my boss, Dr. Edwin Lewis, offered me the chance to run my own independent research project.

Some background: Nematodes are microscopic worms, and some nematodes infect insect larvae. There is a risk to nematodes that are the first to infect an insect larva: the larva’s immune system can fight off the invading worms.

In a population of nematodes, most individuals are “risk-adverse” (wimps), but a few are “risk-prone” (Bravehearts) and lead the attack. My project is supposed to test whether the risk-prone characteristic is a genetic trait.

The plan: Lewis and I designed an experiment where I’d expose larvae to nematodes for two hours, which would only allow the risk-prone folks time to invade. Then I’d breed a new strain of nematodes from those risk-prone parents.

Oh, my naïve dreams of science! Since starting the project in September, I’ve learned that Murphy’s Law is a bitch.

So many things have gone wrong. The larvae I’ve been using have contracted all sorts of colorful fungal infections. My nematodes have mysteriously turned pink (they should be white). Once, the nematodes just up and died. Recently, they decided they just don’t want to breed.

The other day I was feeling the pain of failure, when fellow lab-mate Melissa Moore came in groaning about her project.

“Science means accepting that things will go horribly wrong,” Moore said.

I’ve interviewed several scientists about the threat of failure that haunts every experiment.

Lewis told me about how human error often leads to failure. He was running an experiment on pest control at a golf course. He was testing an area of the golf course for specific numbers of pests, and the golf course management was supposed to use only Lewis’ approved pesticides. The golf course people wanted to help with the experiment, but a golf course is also a business. The golf course management decided to apply an unapproved pesticide just two days before Lewis was supposed come and collect data.

“We showed up to evaluate our plots, and there were all these dead bugs sitting on the top with seagulls eating them,” Lewis said.

An honest mistake led to weeks of wasted time.

Dr. Harry Kaya, professor of entomology at UC Davis, has had many projects ruined by elements beyond his control. He was working on an experiment where plants were quarantined in a green house so he could study the affects of certain pests.

Despite the controlled environment, one of the plants in the experiment arrived with an ant infestation. The unwelcome ants took over the quarantined green house and ruined the experiment.

“There are things that are out of your control when you work with biological systems,” Kaya said. “There’s no cooperation by the insects.”

Ants have ruined many of Kaya’s projects. At least he doesn’t have to deal with unruly sharks.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about shark researcher Dr. Adam Summers from the University of Washington. Summers was doing an experiment where he needed sharks to swim against a current of water in a tank. Mako sharks are super fast swimmers in the wild, but in the tank, they became lethargic.

“Their [the mako sharks’] reaction is to curl up in a ball and flap to the back of the tank,” Summers said.

Turned out the lethargic response was better than the second option: the sharks would get agitated. The massive fish thrashed around and disconnected the wires hooked to their bodies. Without the wires, there were no data. It took Summers almost two months to collect the data he needed.

Moore is right – in the face of failure, scientists must practice the art of acceptance.

Kaya said he’s read many scientific papers where the researchers relied on just one successful trial without taking a risk and reproducing their results. Other researchers have gotten in trouble for running many trials but only reporting the good data that supports their hypotheses.

“That’s bad science,” Kaya said.

I have to finish 10 trials before I can write up the results for my project. So far I’ve had one trial succeed. Lewis is very patient with me when I run down the hall from the laboratory to his office to ask nervous questions.

“Don’t give up hope,” he told me earlier this week. “We’ll make it.”

MADELINE MCCURRY-SCHMIDT wants to give a shout-out to her friends and family members who patiently listen to her whine about her scientific failures. E-mail her future column ideas at memschmidt@ucdavis.edu.

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