Failing Forward: The Essence of Scientific Discovery

By BASIS Volunteer Kamrun Zargar

You’re 5 years old and have been watching the older kids in the neighborhood riding their bikes. You think to yourself “That looks like so much fun; I can’t wait till I get a bike!” One day your mom or dad buys you your first bike, they start teaching you how to pedal, brake and keep your balance. Soon enough you are ready to try it on your own, after all this time you’ve been watching other kids riding around by themselves. So you tell your mom or dad to “let go and back off!” You start pedaling and “Whammm!” you fall over. You “failed” at your first attempt to ride a bike. Did that stop you? No, you got up, picked up the bike and tried again. Why? Because you have seen other kids do it and you “believe” you can do it. Once you believe you can do something, “failure” is irrelevant. Science is not any different: start out with something that excites you, make a plan, try out your plan, and if you fail, learn from your mistakes and try again.

We know that great scientists discover amazing things, but before their successes, they had many failures. Albert Einstein was expelled from school and was refused admittance to the Zurich Polytechnic School. But he eventually won the Nobel Prize and changed modern physics and our understanding of the universe. Regarding failure, he said “In order to succeed, your desire for success should be greater than your fear of failure.” Thomas Edison was told he was “too stupid to learn anything” and he had thousands of unsuccessful attempts at making the light bulb, but he eventually figured it out! He learned something from all his failed attempts and said that “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard and said he “failed in some subjects, but my friend passed in all. Now he is an engineer in Microsoft and I am the owner of Microsoft.” After dropping out he even failed at his first business. But he tried and tried again until he created and became the owner of Microsoft! Just like Einstein, Edison, and Gates, do not settle for a life of mediocrity, but of greatness. Think of failures as steps to our success.

On my way to getting my PhD in microbiology I failed countless times. I started in 2005 at UC Santa Cruz in the department of microbiology and environmental toxicology. I was scared and intimidated by what I would have to accomplish to receive my PhD. I thought to myself “I’m never going to be able to do this!” The task was daunting, but I thought I would try.  I started working on a microbiology project that my supervisor had lots of expertise in, but I was interested in a side project that I knew would be very difficult. However, if I could solve the mystery of how an extremophillic bacterium grew using toxic heavy metals, that would be a great contribution towards understanding how microbes can help remediate heavy metal contaminated soil and water. After some persuasion my supervisor agreed to let me work on the project. With so many unknowns about this bacterium, I had to be ready for many failed experiments before I made any discoveries. From designing the nutrition and growth requirement to finally discovering the metabolic pathways the bacterium used to grow using toxic heavy metals, I had failed experiment after failed experiment. It took me close to 4 years to figure things out and at times it seemed I would never succeed. Why did I keep trying? Because my mentor taught me that there is always something to learn from failed experiments. So I kept trying, failing, learning and trying again, inching my way forward until I figure it out! Though it was great to make an important discovery, the most important discovery for me was realizing that failure is an essential part of scientific discovery. After my experience in graduate school, the thought of failing at something no longer deterred me from trying new things.
If Einstein had quit after he dropped out of school, he would never have made his discoveries and change our understanding of the universe.  If Bill Gates had quit after dropping out of Harvard, he would never have made the computers and smart phones we love so much.  They failed repeatedly, but kept trying, working and believed they could do it. Once you believe you can do something, failure is not scary but an essential part of the learning process. As for me, I have always wanted to make a dining table for my family. I have no experience, but I have my plans, I have my tools and I have my brain. I am very excited to try, and if at first I fail and the table legs are wobbly, well then…I’ll try again!  In science and in life, we must realize that failing forward is essential to breakthrough and discovery.

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