I watched the Tuesday morning sun come up as I took one last sip of my coffee, opened my research notebook, and rehashed a procedure for the following day. Despite the routine order of events, this particular summer morning was important: it was the first day in over four weeks that my lab and I had started to collect some significant data. In other words, four weeks of getting it mostly wrong led to a day we suspected would go mostly right.
It is easy to understand that getting into medical school requires research. Research helps apply scientific thought to contemporary questions. It helps students analyze objectively, think clearly, and create resilience – not to mention build a better application. What is less easy to understand is why the process of getting things wrong is important to getting them finally right. Somewhere in the stillness of feeding cell cultures, harvesting, and doing treatments, you begin to wonder how it all will shape the doctor you eventually become. Between the excessive trial and error, I sometimes wondered if I would have been more helpful to medicine by solving puzzles in waiting rooms with patients instead.
Researchers are both the sleeping giants and modern prophets of our world. Historically, most scientists are known for their feats of ingenuity. What they are less known for is the process of getting things wrong leading up to those brilliant accomplishments. Nobody seems to talk about Einstein’s ten years of developing his Theory of Relativity, and nobody seems more interested in Thomas Edison’s 1,000 ways to not make a light bulb than his one way to make a light bulb. It is an ironic complex. On one end, researchers are experts in their field, able to sow incredible data. On the other end, they sometimes have to admit to being in a drought, that even they do not hold definitive answers for the moment. To be a researcher is to value the drought, admitting we have learned much and have much to learn.
As a pre-med student, you learn that you fight a battle of understanding. You are always standing on the periphery of modern knowledge, staring into a harbor of potential discovery. As you progress through medical school and practice as a doctor, this only becomes truer.
The importance of research is that it equips future doctors to fight the battle of understanding against one of the toughest opponents of the world: sickness. It is notoriously an entity that scarcely leaves clues and often fights back. Traditionally, research helps you think analytically and create resilience. But it also reminds you of the importance of getting it wrong from time to time, that going back to the drawing board is just as important as the final destination.
When I entered college, I didn’t realize I was already solving a different kind of puzzle than one would find in a waiting room. I had been learning from the beginning that being a doctor required forming tactics, and then reforming those tactics. Research merely gives you the tools to see a bigger picture before it is formed – before the pieces of your puzzle start making sense. For me, my forty-hour weeks of research for the summer only seemed to represent a much bigger picture of what was to come: whether it is a drought of data or just a bad day, your research and medical careers are only as good as your character.
Embrace the trials, embrace the setbacks, and embrace the Tuesday mornings when it seems you have finally won the battle of understanding after all.