You Broke It. (It may or may not be okay.)

This is to the undergrad staring at the protocol of the week in horror. Breathe. You will most likely mess it up. Instead of getting frustrated, breathe. It’s okay.


Yes, you should be able to follow basic instructions at this stage and making a mistake will probably cost you. BUT, it’s all right to make mistakes. Repeat after me: mistakes are how you learn (and also by reading protocols). Not a single person has ever made it in life without any mistakes; it just doesn’t happen. If they are saying that then they are lying liars with their pants on fire.

I couldn’t load my samples on the gel for weeks, I would always end up with horribly pierced wells (sideways, through and through you name it, I did it). And, this made me even more terrified to load the next gels. I felt useless in the lab, never mind that I was pretty good at other things. So one day, I said oh-screw-it after the umpteenth hint of “Try not to mess up the gel” and decided to cast, load and run the gel by myself. I messed up one well, but the others turned out right. My hands have long ceased to shake since then. (If they do, it’s probably because I have had two cups of coffee on an empty stomach.)

What I am trying to say is this, you will make mistakes. Some of them will be small and others big. But you should never be scared of doing things simply because you might make a mistake. Use each mistake as a learning platform.

I specified the undergraduate group, because as someone just starting out with her Honours Project, I wish someone had told me during my early BSc years that it was natural to make mistakes . Luckily in my 3rd year, my genetics TA pushed me hard enough to try out any protocol she gave me and then tweak it by myself. I still made mistakes, but I tried my best to learn from it.

Trial and error IS the scientific way of learning new things. So go forth young grasshopper and nosedive into the field…or don’t. Either way as long as you care about learning something then it’s okay. (And be nice to your lab technicians. Seriously, don’t piss them off by being rude; they are like the North and will always remember.)

I am moving my posts from Medium where this was first published on May 16th 2014. I just want to keep all my posts in one place, hence this reposting. Happy pipetting folks!

4 thoughts on “You Broke It. (It may or may not be okay.)

  1. Perfectionism (the definition of fear of mistakes) kills progress (you’ll do it when you have considered every possible contingency…). I wish I’d learned this a lot earlier in my life. It’s something I still have to browbeat myself with to this day. So kudos for passing taht along to an undergrad; they may not believe you, but hopefully some of it sinks in.


    1. I admit I am a bit neurotic about perfectionism so I can understand what you mean by that. I hope this post helps at least someone undergrad or otherwise.


  2. Also, perfectionism impairs learning (in case that’s not obvious). One of my fears of a tight funding environment is that it raises the price of mistakes being taken so seriously no one will try anything ever for fear of messing up. WE are here to learn and sadly, learning can be expensive. Maybe we need the equivalent of wooden swords they use for practice in Game of Thrones (and historically), but with pipette tips/pipettors/gels…that probably doesn’t really exist though :-P.


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