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Misadventures in Research

Illustration by: Caia Colla 

As I was finishing writing my thesis, I started to consider all of the challenges that I went through in the two years of my Masters education in order to deliver such a perfectly rounded piece of work. My feelings were mixed because I was obviously happy to finish this step in my life, but I realized that this document didn’t contain even a third of all the misadventures that got me to this point. In my opinion, the thesis was missing a chapter; there should have been a chapter on “the making of” the research, just to explain how much went wrong and what it really takes to deliver good work. 

When starting a Masters course, you must submit a proposal, which includes your research objectives, the hypothesis, and how you plan to answer that hypothesis. Wow! It was so easy so far! You just follow a previously described method and you understand what your results will look like and how they should be treated. This is all based on previously done work on a similar subject, which of course you know all about after reviewing the relevant literature. Two years to finish this project? No problem! …or at least that is what I thought. For me, it was not this easy, so I am going to tell you a little bit about my many misadventures during my masters.

My work was a behavioral study of marine planktonic organisms in a 3D system. To build the system, I got together with a crew of post-graduate students who would also be using the experimental tank. This is where the soap opera began. We believed that we could build our system based on previous studies, but we quickly noticed that several components were not correct. There were issues with the magnification, color of LED lights, and the shape and positioning on the table. Everything had to be disassembled and reassembled to incorporate the necessary changes. The entire system had to be rebuilt 4 times because with each assembly we noticed new flaws. After months of arranging and rearranging pieces, and with the help of specialists in the area of optics, we finally reached a working system. 

Ok, that took a few more months than expected, but now I could finally perform my tests, generate results, and graduate, right? Wrong. My work required filming the trajectories my target organism takes in the water column. However, the software for the two cameras we had would only film for 20 seconds at a time, which was not a long enough time span to get a valid representation of swimming behavior. We increased the computer’s memory, but that was not the issue. Thankfully, a student in our lab was proficient with computer science, and he became a key contributor to this project’s success. The filming software was completely replaced with software he developed. This new program didn’t have a time limit, however it could not utilize two cameras at once, so two computers had to be used. Having the two computers meant we could be introducing human error in timing; no matter how hard I tried, I cannot click the mouse at the exact same time on two computers. The solution for this problem was to use two microcontrollers that were activated by a potentiometer. Finally, we had a working system with a program that could be modified according to our needs!

Onto the experiments! One of the primary challenges of working with living organisms is that you depend on them to be present in a certain collection spot at a given time of year. Unfortunately for me, by the time the experimental system was set up, we could not find enough individuals to run the experiments. It took several months of daily sampling to have enough individuals to perform all of my experiments, but I finally finished. 

After video collection, the next step of the project was to use a computer program to find coordinates and relevant numerical data on the trajectories of the organisms. Given the topic of this post, it may not be a surprise to say something went wrong in this part too. As it turned out, the program that was originally going to be used could not compare the long videos that we fought so hard to attain. Once more, we turned to our computer science hero, and he developed software that could give us the organisms’ trajectories independent of video size. Let me take a moment to point out that software development is not an easy task; it took several iterations to get it to the point we needed it.

With data in hand, I could finally analyze them and get my results. Data analysis is never easy, but given what I had already gone through, the challenges seemed minor in comparison. I had no idea how far off that initial Master’s plan would end up being, or that I would face so many challenges. I also didn’t expect how much this project would shape me. I had to be more than a biologist for this work; I learned how to solder, make electrical connections, understand physics, be a computer technician, and learn a little about programming. 

Beyond all of the research obstacles, you still have to live your own life. This may be the most complicated part of the whole project. I often felt defeated and like I couldn’t carry on as I was faced with problem after problem. I know many others have lived through much bigger issues with their graduate research, but no matter the size of the problem, it shakes you to the core, and it can often be debilitating. 

But, if you can push through these setbacks and fears of failure, you will eventually reach the end with a huge sense of accomplishment, as I did. It is important for me to share these misadventures in research with you to show what it actually takes to do research—it involves many tries and more wrongs than rights, but in the end, you publish a beautiful piece of well-crafted work. Even with all of the pressures and obstacles I faced, I still love what I do. Through all of the challenges, I grow more certain that I made the right choice.

What challenges have you faced in your research? Comment below to share a little of your story with us!

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