Scientific Anthology: Failure as a Stepping Stone

Introduction

Failure is often seen as a negative part of scientific discovery. Failure is inherently bad. But failure is not completely bad. When it is not a completely indomitable failure, it provides an opportunity for growth, and quite often is a stepping stone towards success, or brings you one step closer from achieving your goal.

This anthology is a collection of 15 carefully curated pieces which reflect the importance and the nuances around failure and its role in the scientific world. As you will find, failure is not only an irremovable component of science and progress, but a driving force into scientific discovery and advancement.
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Scientific Anthology: Failure as a Stepping Stone

Competition and Insulin Production

Chapter 4 of Genentech posed some interesting points as they discussed the discovery and production of human insulin. While most of the chapter did focus on the technical and science aspects of actually synthesizing human insulin, there was a lot of discussion between the development of insulin through the influence of competition. It was stated that both UCSF and Harvard were competing to produce insulin first and when they thought they did, it was really only found to be a precursor to insulin, rather, an inactive form. After this was discovered, Genentech was able to successfully synthesize human insulin. It is interesting to look at the external influences that cause discoveries to be made. Rather than just playing around  with compounds or molecules, competition, essentially, drove the creation of insulin. This relates to things that people see in their everyday lives. Under pressure and competing with others allows one to create the best output. In a video, Goeddel, discusses the fierce competition that helped Genentech prosper in the synthesis of human insulin. It is interesting to see the perspectives of scientists and researchers involved as they experienced the pressure and competition first hand. Thus, this chapter gave us readers an interesting look into what it takes for something to be successful – while intellectual faculty and knowledge plays a major role, sometimes the external environment and competition between people produces the best results.

Competition and Insulin Production

Funding Dilemmas

“Swanson’s experience as a venture capitalist had centered on young Silicone Vally companies, each with products that had been prototyped and were nearing or on the market. Genetech presented a very different situation.” – Hughes (49)

The unfortunate reality, is that in order to conduct experiments and discover new things, you need resources, and resources are funded by money. Thus, in order to conduct experiments and move forward with your endeavor, you have to have funding; money.

The way in which most scientists go is that they search for investors that would be willing to sponsor and fund the project. the scientist(s) will then show this investor what they are working on and their current progress. However, earning the funds from venture capitalists has become increasingly difficult as the years have gone on. The competition is higher and there are simply more people looking for investors. It helps promote a higher level of discovery, but many groups projects get out on fault until they find someway to pay for their projects.

An alternative is to apply for a government grant. The government grant is something that scientists don’t necessarily drool over, but its something to get the wheels off the ground. Since its a government grant, it isn’t as efficient or lenient as a venture capitalist but again, its money that these groups of scientists need to move forward.

But go into the mind of a scientist, how would you like to be funded? Most people would answer venture capitalist. But whats the significance? Well, the significance is that Genetech had no prototype or model.In todays society it would be impossible to receive funding this way, however the guys at Genetech managed to earn money for their incredible work without having a tangible model to show what they were trying to accomplish. Its remarkable really. But, the important thing is that were able to somewhat avoid this difficult process of putting their project on hold to receive funds. They were still at the first stage of discovery so they were able to just hit the ground running with money, and go from there. Very unique situation.

Funding Dilemmas

Academics in Industry

“Commercialization of biological discoveries was far from novel at the birth of Genentech: Big Pharma had been doing it for a long time. But for a member of the academic community to be so intimately involved, that was a sea change. No one had thought much about the rules for how this might be done. So there were repercussions, particularly among the faculty of UCSF- a hue and cry over potential conflicts of interest. It was a harrowing time for Herb Boyer”- (Hughes 72)

Firstly, even though Hughes here makes a distinction between using academic discoveries for profit and academics using academic resources for profit, I do not see a difference. If Big Pharma was using discoveries found in research labs for profit, that is essentially the same thing as using research labs to make profit. In the end, the work of the research labs is being used for money-making purposes.

Secondly, Boyer himself was not motivated by profit, saying he “thought I was doing something that was valuable to society” (Hughes 73). Just the fact that he went through depression after experiencing all the criticism from academia shows that his motives were sincere. He was still performing his duties as professor, so why was his using university labs a problem? I guess it is the equivalent to someone doing their own project at work, and not their company’s assignments, and so losing their company money, but I feel like the point of research universities is not to make money off research, but to contribute to the knowledge pool of that field. Furthermore, if the point of research universities is to better society, was’t Boyer doing that? Finally, I feel as though the fact that the criticism came mainly from other UCSF professors says a lot.

Academics in Industry

Bias in Forensic Science

” I said something along the lines of, ‘This looks very promising, but for it to be used in court, we have to pass the Frye standard.’ I outlined the possible weaknesses, as I saw them; validation of the statistics, standards for matches, all the things that seemed pretty apparent to us. I thought I had given a nice talk about what would have to be done, when this woman from the Orange County crime lab stood up and said, ‘This kind of talk is dangerous. You shouldn’t be saying these kinds of things in public. Defense lawyers might find out about this and use it’ ” -Weinberg 192

I think that this attitude from forensic scientists says a lot. Firstly, I think that it shows the bias that at the time forensic scientists had towards defendants in general: they strove to prove them guilty. This statement from this woman shows that she and forensic scientists as a community were most likely to be on the side of the prosecution. This is even proven after Weinberg points out that the DNA testing was never done blind, and so forensic scientists were basically giving their own personal verdicts to the prosecution and courts.

This attitude is very alarming to me personally, because I consider myself a scientist also. It worries me to think that other scientists would inject their own opinions and biases into evidence and use science as a means to an end. For me, science and the discovery of new things should come from and be used as a way to make everyone’s lives easier and more efficient, not to meet one’s own personal agenda. It is also alarming to think that these labs and the courts were not monitoring the DNA testing, so that it would be blind. Weinberg even mentions that a scientist who studied the DNA of birds could’t even imagine doing her experiments unblinded. If birds are monitored so closely, why weren’t humans? Are they not more important and aren’t the implications more drastic? I feel as though this situation was almost a breach of ethics.

Bias in Forensic Science

The Future and Science

“When Arthur Conan Doyle wrote this, there was no way to determine whether a dried bloodstain was human or animal.” Weinberg, page 49

When the author Conan Doyle wrote the mysteries and solved them, the way he solved that one mystery was discovered not much later. It caught my attention since we are never able to know what may be just fictional or what can eventually turn into reality so easily. There are so many things that we read, but we don’t really take them into account. However, they can be the near the future without us realizing it. People that read Sherlock Holmes probably did not even think that what they were reading would actually become an essential thing for crime solving and for identifying people in other situations.

The Future and Science

Penicillin: An Accidental Discovery

Penicillin is an antibiotic drug discovered by accident. It was founded by Sir Alexander Fleming who at the time was experimenting with the influenza virus in a lab. The scientist took a break from experimenting and  weeks later found mold on a plate. When the scientist found the mold, he investigated it and noticed the mold prevented growth of staphylococci. After this discovery, Fleming tested the mold and found out it can work against bacteria. Today, the penicillin drug  treats many life threatening illnesses such as meningitis and pneumonia.

This is one of many serendipitous moments in science that has happened  influencing society for the better. These accidental happenings in science are amazing and are so interesting to read out. I wonder what will be discovered next by accident.

pencillin

Picture Credits: http://www.topbritishinnovations.org/~/media/Voting/Images/Penicillin_detail_2.jpg

Here is a video featuring Science and Serendipity:

Video

Penicillin: An Accidental Discovery

Discovery

“Sunspots were simultaneously discovered in 1611 by four scientists living in four different countries” (Johnson 34)

I’ve never given much  thought to what would happen if multiple people discovered the same thing, at the same time. Many questions arose from this piece of trivia. Who receives the credit? Why is it that they all happened to discover it around the same time? Did some event happen to influence their research? Did they gather their information from the same sources? It was interesting to learn that 4 unrelated scientists were researching something so far from Earth, in 1611.

Discovery