An appreciation of uncertainty

Published April 03 2017

Walking on ice

I don’t have numbers on how many perfectionists go into Ph.D. programs, but I have a feeling that many fewer come out the other side — not because they drop out but because perfection is irreconcilable with exploring the outer reaches of knowledge.

This was certainly the case for me. In high school and college, perfection was attainable, quantifiable and highly rewarded. Though my first love was writing, I assumed early on that a career in writing was way too risky. What if I wasn’t any good? What if I failed?

So I pursued my second interest: science. In my naivete, I assumed a career in research would be more secure and straightforward, though to be fair, this was soon after the budget of the National Institutes of Health had doubled. Plus, graduate school, with its humble yet guaranteed stipend, appeared to be the least risky choice I could make.

But anyone who has conducted research, from a summer intern to a Nobel laureate, knows that failure is part and parcel with science. For proof, look no further than the number of student presentations, including my own for three years, titled “Attempts at Crystallizing Protein X.” Crystallizing a protein is an early and not trivial step in determining the three-dimensional structure of a protein in X-ray crystallography. But matrix screening is built on the premise that more than 99 percent of chemical conditions will fail to yield diffracting crystals.

Uncertainty is found not only in the day-to-day failure of experiments but in choosing a hypothesis that may be completely wrong. For some, pursuing a reoccurring band on a Western blot leads to the discovery of ubiquitin; for many others, that band really is just a contaminant.

But as researchers, we must embrace that uncertainty, much as a jazz musician does not know where the music will end when he begins playing. Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine, said as much a 1991 interview: “Risks, I like to say, always pay off. You learn what to do, or what not to do. I like to say ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained.’”

Though I had heard similar quotes throughout my life, it wasn’t until graduate school that I learned the process of failure in practice and that what makes science so risky is also what makes it so exciting.

Eventually I left research to try my hand at science writing. People sometimes ask me if I regret not pursuing writing sooner. But I can’t imagine a different path, since it was precisely this newfound appreciation for uncertainty that empowered me to ask, “What if I left bench science?”

Yes, failure was possible, but so was success. While I wouldn’t achieve my dream job as a science writer immediately, if the career path remotely resembled the sinusoidal valleys and peaks of research, I could persist and persevere.

Ulli Hain Ulli Hain received her Ph.D. from the Johns Hopkins University. She is a science writer at Palladian Partners Inc.