By Kelly

Even kittens fail sometimes
(www.epicfail.net/2008/10/06/kitten-failure)

The “Epic Fail” montages are a mainstay on YouTube for those who enjoy schadenfreude, or laughing at the expense of the others (German is an excellent language). It is usually a compilation of videos where the protagonists hurt, maim, or shame themselves over handlebars, by running into glass doors or slipping on all manner of surfaces, then falling from all manner of heights. I would be lying if I said I had never laughed at these calamities so I feel it only fair to share my week, actually it was more like 10 days ,of epic scientific failure.

A week or so back I wrote a post about the pressure to publish. I opened in weary excitement from Hobart, where I was  to collect the last of the data needed to write my first detective story: girl meets coral, coral gives up secrets of East Australian Current climatology. It’s a long title sure, but catchy don’t you think? I needed to rescue some samples that had not been analysed on my last trip due to technical difficulties…keeping in mind that it takes me 4-5 hours to run a single sample, in triplicate, bracketed with standards. And this is where the fails begin. It looks as though the samples have gone bad…..I tried to revive them chemically but in the process I appear to have lost several compounds. If any one sees stray glycine or alanine wandering the halls please let me know, they belong to me. But you can see the positive can’t you?

That’s right, the fact that we could generate numbers in the first place is a massive bonus. The instrument was running so well that I decided to ignore the conference proceedings begging to be written, and prepare another 6 samples. Somewhere during the 2-3 days of preparation came the next fail. My wet chemistry is just fine thank you very much, but the instrument.. well that couldn’t have failed worse. We work with our samples in the gas phase and feed them through  tens of meters of capillary tube to separate the compounds. It constitutes catastrophic failure when part of the capillary snaps clean in half, and further failure when in the process we ruin not one, but two of the furnaces required to produce sensible numbers. And so I left Hobart empty-handed (quite literally as I accidentally left half my samples in the drying oven) with my head hanging low, desperately hoping that once more the instrument could be salvaged in time to salvage my samples.

But all was not lost, as I was en route to Melbourne where I would be extracting equally interesting data, this time using a Liquid Chromatograph (LC) to separate my compounds. To keep it short, coming in to the lab on day 2 of 14 to find the instrument sitting in a puddle of dilute acid means that the L for your LC is not carrying your compounds anywhere except on to the bench. And you have failed again. However I was not alone, administration also failed as they forgot to order the spare part needed to fix the problem. But not to worry, I can book in for more instrument time…..in February?? Hmmm wasn’t I recently writing about finishing next June? That really was optimistic.

But I am an optimisit. As one of my supervisors pointed out, this is working on the cutting edge. I think he meant the edge of science not the edge of sanity, but either is appropriate. If getting a PhD was easy then everyone would do it, right? Personally I think it is just that I have to go interstate to fail epically, most other students I know fail in their home laboratory so it is just filed as a bad day in the office.

SO my detective story will have to wait a little longer, and I shall go back to writing my conference proceedings….but I am backing up my computer every hour or so, just in case 🙂