Wednesday, October 3, 2012

On high risk experiments and knowing when to stop

I’m going to write this post not to embarrass myself and show you the dumb choices I have made as a post-doc so far, but in the hopes that someone will learn something from this. Here it goes:

Looking back, I think I had a pretty easy PhD project. Sure, half of the things that I tried failed, but the other half worked pretty well. I got a lot of things done, because most of the things that worked were experiments that the lab was already doing. Someone else had done all the trouble shooting and I could just jump on the train and get results. I realized that at the time, but now that I’m trying to set up new things myself I especially realize how luxurious that was. Also, we had good infrastructure in the labs and awesome technical support (again, things I only really appreciate now that they’re not here).

So then I started my post-doc. I wanted to learn electrophysiology and thought of an Awesome Project for myself. For the Awesome Project I not only had to learn electrophysiology but also another technique that I was only slightly familiar with. I learned electrophysiology pretty quickly in our lab and went to a collaborator’s lab to learn the other technique. And even though some people familiar with these techniques said that the Awesome Project may be too difficult, I enthusiastically went ahead (Important Advice: when people who know what they’re talking about tell you this, LISTEN!). 

I learned these two techniques that I needed and started to do some pilot experiments. But then I found out that if something works in one lab, it doesn’t necessarily work in another lab. So I was struggling way more than I anticipated. And I also found out that for the Awesome Project to work, we needed an extra expensive piece of equipment, because it didn’t work on our regular equipment. So my PI and I got ourselves on a department-wide grant to buy that expensive piece of equipment as a core facility, but that is only going to get here in about a year from now. 

After 2,5 years into this post-doc I have to admit to myself that the Awesome Project is going to have to wait until sometime later in my life. Because of the technical difficulties, but also because right now I just need papers from this lab to show what I have learned and done here. The home country’s grant that I am applying for you can only apply for until three years after your PhD (although I get a year longer because of BlueEyes being born, so I have next year too), so they assume that after a three year post-doc you’re ready to move on. I think that in neuroscience that is kind of short, especially if you want to get something high risk like the Awesome Project published in that time. 

So the lessons I have learned:

  • Don’t assume that if something works in another lab, it will work in your lab.
  • Write down the actual time that experiments will take before you dive into doing them.
  • Make sure you have all the equipment you need (this seems obvious, but really wasn’t in my case).
  • Listen to people who know what they’re saying.

Now I’m going to go ahead to gather pilot data for my grant, and try to turn some of the pilot experiments for the Awesome Project into paper(s).


  1. sounds like you got a good outcome anyway (if you get papers out of the pilot experiements). It is hard to have the time line thing present and going when you start a new field/project. I've taken that to heart from my PhD time since I didn't have a straight forward project ;) It would've been even better if I had remembered to "keep a third project up on the side or collaborate" for my post-doc. Ah well, we all learn, question is if there is enough time "after the thought sinks in" to 'fix' it. Sounds like you have that! :)

    1. I hope it will have a good outcome. Good thing is that I also have a bunch of collaborations, so a couple things in parallel that should hopefully get me some papers.