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Failure Is Part of the Job Description
Juliana Chan (Dr) (Founder and Editor-in-Chief, Asian Scientist Magazine)
Photos courtesy of Dr Juliana Chan
Published: EduNation, Issue 3, May-Jun 2013
The thought of failure crossed my mind a lot this week. I have been attending the inaugural 2013 Global Young Scientists Summit, or GYSS@one-north, which is modelled after the annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Germany and also the first of its kind in Asia.

It would be reasonable to hope that — after listening to 12 Nobel Laureates and other prize winners discuss their scientific breakthroughs — I would see a path, albeit long and winding, to scientific success in my own career. After all, I suspect that inspiring young scientists was the goal of the summit in the first place.

But all I could see was failure. And please do not get me wrong, I'm not the "glass half-empty" type of person. It is just that in every talk, the speakers would humorously tell us about their years of failure that in some cases lasted for decades, long before that 6 am call arrived from Stockholm bearing a message of Nobel-sized proportions.

A year of failure per Powerpoint slide, I estimated.

During the summit, Dan Shechtman, 2011 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, recounted how fellow laureate Linus Pauling spent the last decade of his life proving that Shechtman's findings were incorrect. "There are no quasi-crystals, there are only quasi-scientists". Pauling told Shechtman, and stayed unconvinced to his death. But Shechtman remained single-minded in proving the existence of the icosahedral phase, which has now been verified to exist in nature.

Ada Yonath tried for years to crystallize the ribosome, a large complex machine in our cells where all proteins are synthesised. Each time she tried, the ribosome crystals would melt within seconds when she attempted to view them. It was only after six years that — by pioneering the technique of cryo-crystallography — she was able to obtain the first structure of the ribosome. Considering that under five per cent of all Nobel laureates are women, it probably made winning the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry even sweeter in her case.

Taken from another perspective, I'd say that these 12 laureates didn't only succeed the most, they also failed the most. Strangely, they all seemed to enjoy the iterative process of discovery.

But let's say the majority of us aren't in the category of potential Nobel nominees, are we then spared from the drudgery of failure?

Absolutely not. Failure happens to everyone, except that those who keep on trying have the chance of escaping it occasionally, versus those who shun it at all costs. My time as a graduate student taught me that 99 per cent of all experiments are unsuccessful (in my case at least), and that aiming higher (and falling harder) was the only path to graduation.

I've also spent a lot of time promoting science careers to aspiring scientists during road shows and workshops. Rather than spend the session waxing lyrical about science, I tell them honestly that failure is part of the job description. I describe failure as a deeply misunderstood friend, and Nobel laureates as regular people who fail repeatedly while tackling the most bewildering questions out there.

However, the dogged pursuit of success is not for everyone and can even lead to unintended outcomes. Cautionary tales include Hwang Woo-suk, the Korean scientist who fraudulently claimed his team had successfully cloned the first human embryo and extracted stem cells from it. And a more recent example is Lance Armstrong, who did all he could to win the Tour de France, even at the expense of his own moral code.

That kind of intense competition is something that the Singapore education system is trying to avoid. I have been following closely the recent changes to the Ministry of Education curriculum, such as the introduction of Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) into the syllabus and also the move to withhold the scores and names of top PSLE scorers.

While I applaud the move as I recall the pressures I went through as a student, more fundamentally, students must be given the license to make mistakes at that age because failure is a better teacher than success.

Most of us may be familiar with Amy Chua, professor of law at the Yale Law School, who is also known as the "Tiger Mother". Chua insisted that her two daughters practise the piano daily, and by the time her elder daughter Sophia was 14, she had made her piano debut at Carnegie Hall in New York performing Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet.

Chua's version of parenting is that one has to train hard before one can succeed, be it in music, sports, or science; and that children are not mature enough to understand the concept of delayed gratification, hence the need for constant pushing. Her methods are a tad extreme, but her words bear some truth.

Perhaps we may also need to redefine success in non-academic terms, which is why I am thrilled to see that there are now dedicated schools for aspiring ballerinas, installation artists, and bowlers.

Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, once said that Singapore could not produce a company like Apple because of the dearth of creativity here.

"Where are the creative people? Where are the great artists? Where are the great musicians? Where are the great writers?" Wozniak asked in an interview with the BBC.

I think it is because failure is not acceptable in our culture that creativity is also undermined. After all, creativity brings with it a certain degree of risk. Scientific discovery is also a function of creativity, and without it, would Singapore be able to produce a Nobel laureate of its own?

As the conference wraps up on Friday, I hope that the 280 young scientists attending the event will return home with renewed confidence that it is OK to fail at something they love doing.

The article was first published in Asian Scientist Magazine on 24 January 2013.

精选文章 > 失败是工作的职务之一败
曾叔评博士 (《亚洲科学家》杂志创办人兼总编辑)
刊载:《新学》, 第3期,2013年5月-6月





















Juliana Chan (Dr) / 曾 评博士
Dr Juliana Chan received a PhD in Biology from MIT, USA with a MA and BA (First Class Hons) in Natural Sciences from the University of Cambridge, UK. Her scientific work has been featured by the BBC Health website, and she won the 2010 Singapore Women抯 Weekly Great Women Of Our Time Award (Science & Technology). In 2011 she was a recipient of the L扥r閍l-UNESCO for Women in cience National Fellowships. Her research interests include microfluidics and nanoparticle-based drug delivery. 曾 评是美国麻省理工学院的生物学博士,之前在英国剑桥大学获得自然科学一级荣誉学士及硕士学位。她的科学研究曾被英国广播公司的健康频道报道,并于2010年获颁新加坡《每周女性》周刊“时代杰出女性(科学与科技)”殊荣。她也获得2011年由欧莱雅集团及联合国教科文组织联合颁发的“为投身于科学的女性”国家奖学金。她的主要研究领域是运用微流控技术和纳米粒子作为药物载体。


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