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Kate Travis

Learning from Mistakes

One of my favorite headlines on a Science Careers article is Disasters of the Famous, in which we asked some now-prominent scientists about their laboratory mistakes. A surprising number of the anecdotes involve fire. But the point is, all of them overcame those setbacks and mistakes to go on to have successful scientific careers.

In August in the inaugural issue of iBioMagazine, Science’s editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts recalls in a video presentation how 5 years’ worth of his Ph.D. research experiments failed, and he went on to fail his oral exam.

It worked out for Alberts in the end: He went on to become a prominent cell biologist, served as president of the National Academy of Sciences, and is one of the original authors of the textbook, Molecular Biology of the Cell. “Success doesn’t teach you much. Failure teaches you a lot,” he says in the iBioMagazine video (below). Study your failures very carefully, he says: Those who are successful don’t make the same mistake twice.


In 2008, we published a profile of Cambridge scientist Tony Kouzarides, who spoke honestly about his struggles with his research during his Ph.D. and postdoc, most of which was unpublishable. “Spend as much time as you like thinking about the experiment because if you waste your time doing the wrong experiment, you might as well not do it at all,” advises Kouzarides, who is now a group leader at the Gurdon Institute.

An item in the Wall Street Journal last May offered up an example from the corporate world: Peter G. Peterson, the billionaire co-founder of private equity firm Blackstone Group LP, got kicked out of MIT for plagiarizing a paper from another student.

“The humiliating expulsion made Peterson realize he should avoid ‘self-serving rationalizations about questionable behavior,'” the author writes in the article. “He instead asked himself: ‘What would a person I admire greatly think about this behavior?'” The result, Peterson says, has framed his business practices since.

“To rebound from early mistakes, you need time to reflect constructively,” Joann S. Lublin writes in the WSJ article.

And, if you don’t want to take their word for it, you could listen to Michael Jordan: