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A mistake

This past week, I swore for the first time in the lab. Now I’m no Pacino in Scarface but nor am I a saint. Nonetheless, it is rather surprising that it took me a whole year to show true frustration in the lab.

I was performing a new experiment: isolating cells from a mouse’s liver. It is a tricky procedure. After anaesthetizing the mouse, you need to carefully open the abdominal cavity without damaging any viscera. After exposing the liver, you then insert a catheter into the portal vein in order to flush the liver with a perfusion pump.  This perfusion is critical to properly digest the organ and obtain large numbers of viable cells. The vessel, however, is impossibly small. Until you see it done by an expert (thanks Victoria!) you’d wager that it is impossible to hit with a needle. Faced with my first attempt I flub: I nick the vein and blood begins filling my field of view. My heart races and I begin to panic; but Victoria jumps to my rescue. With her guidance we manage to insert the catheter. We see it filling with blood: we’re in the vessel! It’s going to work!

The remaining steps are easy: hook up the tubing and hold the catheter in place for a 5 minute perfusion. I feel my pulse leveling, and my fingers shake less. At minute 4 the catheter is beautifully inserted in the vein. At minute 5 I am holding it in my hand, looking at the perfusing end dripping fluid blindly into the abdominal cavity. The first swear comes timidly; almost like a question: did it really come out? The second swear answers loudly and clearly. Victoria rushes over: what’s wrong? I mucked up, I answer. I f***ing mucked up.

Mistakes are very common in research. Swearing, by all accounts, is a healthy strategy to cope with the immediate setback. But swearing has no bearing on the long-term outcome of a mistake. All graduate students soon learn that resilience and perseverance in the face of failure is crucial for scientific success. Since my initial failure, I have repeated this experiment with improving outcomes. In due course, I expect that I will be able to consider myself if not a liver perfusion expert, then at least proficient in this technique. Will swearing help me achieve that goal? It very well might: so long as it does not alienate my colleagues and sources of help, it just might allow me to rapidly accept my failure and use the lessons learned in a new attempt.


The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.

Stefan Tarnawsky

MS4 MD/PhD Student. Going into Internal Medicine; interested in Heme/Onc. Bread baker, bonsai artist, aspiring astronomer.