Friday, August 29, 2008

Stubbornness

When I started undergrad, I knew exactly what I wanted to major in. By the way - it was not engineering, it was a fundamental science. My drive resulted from everyone (except my parents who are the epitome of support in this respect) telling me that I couldn't do it. My high school teachers, most of my high school classmates, and many of my college professors all were very discouraging. But instead of being convinced out of pursuing this field, it actually convinced me even more.

My mom refers to this as my stubborn streak. When I was child, she used to view this in a negative light. Now she agrees it is probably my best asset. Apparently, it is an inherited trait which runs deep in our family.

It definitely got me through undergrad - I was told I couldn't do things so many times I lost count. I could take three lab courses simultaneously. I couldn't take an MBA course. My senior thesis project - it couldn't be done (I did it - it was hard, but it got done). I just shouldn't even bother applying to grad school with my subject GRE score. You know what - I have yet to meet someone who does well on that stupid test!

Then, in grad school, the same cycle repeated. And as an experimentalist, I have to say stubbornness is definitely important. Especially if you think something can be done. I did many experiments that other students had dropped because they gave up. Giving up is lame. Trying the same approach for 1 yr is stupid - but giving up, especially on experiments which can lead to really interesting results, can lead to even more wasted time. It takes a lot of time to come up to speed in a research area, understand the purpose of project and begin experiments. Why not try 2, 5, 10 different approaches to reach the final goal?

Science is about thinking outside of the box and coming up with creative solutions to complex problems, and many of my male colleagues in grad school would stop when the first easy solution failed. If it was easy, it probably would have been done. It is only interesting because it is hard. And finding the solution is part of the fun.

Anyway, this only comes up now because I gave one of my students a project in May, which from my perspective sounded easy - everything is easy when you are the advisor. You get to sit in the office and state the beginning and the end, and wait for results. Maybe not that easy, but all of the details, like taking time-points every 2 hrs (I had friends in Biology - I felt so sorry for them), just happen, magically.

In any case, it sounded straight forward, but in June, he began to run into some problems. Reported them, then said he would fix them. Then in July, he had fixed them - he did a literature search, came up with a new solution based on a modification of a method found in literature (which was published in the 1970's), and it worked. Then he characterized his samples using like 10 different methods, and everything triangulated. I'm just so proud of him. Granted, it all worked out in a couple months - but he also works 6 days a week, 12 hrs a day. So for a normal grad student, it probably would have taken much longer.

1 comment:

Academic said...

As an another female engineer, I can say that one's stubborn streak is truly a terrific asset!