• Question: Has one of your projects ever gone wrong or have backfierd

    Asked by ciano to Gavin, Karen, Mark, Michel, Roisin on 4 Nov 2016.
    • Photo: Mark Kennedy

      Mark Kennedy answered on 4 Nov 2016:

      Hi Ciano,

      Projects of mine have backfired all the time – one of the problems with working in astrophysics is, quite often, the Universe just doesn’t co-operate. My biggest backfire happened about 5 months ago. I was working on observing a star system that explodes every 4 hours, and had asked the fine people working on the Swift X-ray Telescope (http://swift.gsfc.nasa.gov/) to look at the system for me. Unfortunately, when I told them how bright I thought the system would be, I told them the wrong number (I told them I was expecting 10 counts every second, when in reality, it was only meant to be 1 count every second!). This meant the telescope wasn’t able to properly see the system, and wasted around 6 hours of time (which, for a telescope which is orbiting in space, costs A LOT OF MONEY!). Right now, we’re working on repeating this experiment, now that we know how to operate the telescope correctly. Hopefully it’ll go better next time!

    • Photo: Karen

      Karen answered on 4 Nov 2016:

      The short answer is Yes! The exciting and frustrating thing about science is that you never know what the outcome of research is going to be and you shouldn’t try to predict it…that is called research or experimenter bias(if you try to influence the result). For example my final year project in UCC was testing a new technique for identifying specific genetic mutations in a hereditary disease called malignant hyperthermia (individuals who have this gene have an extreme and sometimes fatal reaction to general anaesthetic), my conclusion was that the technique was limited and very difficult to perform. So although the result was not what I wanted it was still useful and showed that the technique needed improvement.
      So if you approach science with an open mind projects do not backfire as such but given you an answer that you weren’t expecting. A good example of this is the Australian professor who first coined the term “gluten intolerance” (as opposed to coeliac disease) didn’t trust his research as he believed it was biased. He repeated his study carefully ensuring there was no research or experimenter bias and completely disproved his own results and proved that there is no such condition as gluten intolerance.

    • Photo: Michel Destrade

      Michel Destrade answered on 4 Nov 2016:

      Hi Ciano,

      Yes of course, the maths just don’t add up sometimes! Or I embarked on something too difficult for me and had to give up. Or the experiments didn’t work, the technician retired, the student graduated and left, etc.

      What’s nice about science though, is that other people work in your area or in a closely related field, and you meet them or come across their results, or teach yourself a new technique, etc. and then you can revisit a project you had abandoned earlier. Or someone contacts you and say they know how to do it! Feels great when you finally break a problem.

      In my early career, I was working on one problem at a time, and just after my PhD I looked at a problem of seismic waves (Earthquake tremors) for an entire year, day after day, until I finally solved it!

      Now I work on several problems at a time, and when I hit a wall, I just move on to something else, and let that tricky problem on the back-burner somewhere in my brain, hoping it will solve itself. Works too!

    • Photo: Roisin Jones

      Roisin Jones answered on 5 Nov 2016:

      Hey again Ciano!

      The short answer is: yes, all the time! With chemistry, you have so many variables that can affect the outcome of a reaction, that something simple like changing the rate at which you’re stirring the reaction can totally change the outcome.

      A decent example of this is actually something that happened to me and my demonstrator back when I was completing my final year project: we were trying to repeat an experiment that we’d read in an article, but we couldn’t get it to work as well as they did: they got over 80% product, and we were only getting about 30%! We wracked our brains for ages, trying to figure out what we were doing wrong, and eventually we had a look at where the research in the paper was carried out. It turned out to be in India, and they had done the reaction at ‘room temperature’. However, room temperature in India is VERY different to room temperature in Ireland! We raised the temperature of our reaction by about 15°C and suddenly we were getting over 80% product too.

      Of course, with chemistry, there’s always the potential that one of your experiments will backfire in a slightly more spectacular way! I’m fortunate enough never to have had a fire, but I know of plenty of researchers who have, and I have had glass that had invisible weaknesses shatter under pressure, which is always a little alarming!

    • Photo: Gavin Coleman

      Gavin Coleman answered on 7 Nov 2016:

      Almost all the time! More often than things work, but it’s part of trying to understand something that’s never been done before.

      for example, the first year of my phd was spent trying to link proteins together to see if they acted differently. Spent months and months optimising the conditions, the nature of the link, everything. when it finally came to testing them on cells to see if they worked, they had a really low interaction rate.
      I found out that modifying them the way i had blocked their natural function, which we didn’t really expect. so the project had to be given up on 🙁