Lab Rats

Chasing the result

A stem cell scientist’s perspective

Anestis Tsakiridis 24 April 2013

Puzzle piece: data can be elusive

Months may pass, seasons will change, grant money will run out and strings of experiments will still be failing

Editor's note: We are pleased to present the runner-up entry for this year's British Society for Cell Biology's writing prize, of which was the judge. Please check out the winning piece, also published here today.

The framework of a scientific story, which comprises a researcher’s vehicle to communicate personally-derived snippets of knowledge to colleagues, funders and the public, relies heavily on the choreographed assembly of data or “Results”. These are the building blocks of PhD theses, research articles, talks and grant proposals and thus hold an almost divine status in the minds and hearts of scientists.

A “Result” can be anything: a number, a graph, an image, a statistical variation in a sea of data. It is the distillation of the empirical component of a researcher’s job, the visible product of manual work that, in the case of stem cell science, normally takes place inside laboratories and tissue culture hoods. Results are born out of questions and curiosity, both critical factors contributing to the design of a series of experiments aiming to shed light on the different facets of a hypothesis.

Once the conceptual foundations for a research project are laid, the generation of data is heavily dependent on the time and effort invested in carrying out the work. There is nothing magical involved in this process: it is simply a painstaking repetition of variations of the same sequence of actions employing myriad tubes, miniscule volumes of liquids, tonnes of cells and sophisticated machinery, until the optimal conditions are reached that will “bleed” drop by drop the desired “Result”, the sacred data point materialising out of the abstract nothingness of ideas. However, investment of working hours, despite being the main driving force behind the efficient acquisition of results, is not sufficient to offer experimental success.

I often have discussions with colleagues about whether there is such a thing as a natural talent in the technicalities of conducting the actual research. I am never sure of the answer but I believe that inherent manual dexterity and an eye for detail can accelerate the rate of data production. On the other hand, training is helpful too, and asking for help from the right people with the appropriate expertise in a completely new technique can save lots of valuable time. And, of course, a degree of luck as well as the ability to recognise a fortunate finding when it comes can also be pivotal in shaping the outcome of an experiment.

However, results are often elusive rare sightings and chasing them is sometimes similar to looking for a rare species of insects in the middle of a jungle. Months may pass, seasons will change, grant money will run out and strings of experiments will still be failing. Frustration, disappointment and stress are common emotional features inhabiting a researcher’s psyche during these dark hours. And then sometime before midnight, in the middle of an experiment’s repeat No. 122 and after several rounds of troubleshooting which this time involves tweaking the pH of buffer X, there it appears! O joy of joys, the now almost tearful researcher, standing on the edge of a physical and mental breakdown, is face to face with the highly anticipated, beautiful Result, the great “significant difference compared to the control”. And it’s these moments of near-religious ecstasy accompanying the achievement of a result that make it worth being a researcher. It’s not the money (science is not really a job), or the fame (hardly anyone makes it to the headlines), it’s just the pure primeval desire for discovery. A discovery that in most of the cases is modest, even insignificant, but nevertheless powerful enough to trigger the adrenaline-rush of walking on the tiniest square nanometer of unconquered knowledge.

The labs are now empty, the big white neon lights are switching off and a good Result always deserves a celebratory pint of beer before last orders. Tomorrow will be a long day again as I forgot to mention that a Result must be acquired at least three times in order to be meaningful...