When Science Doesn’t Add Up

Amy Oldenburg stood by the classroom door, heart racing and palms sweating. An anxious sense of excited dread looming over her. Three hours. She only had three hours to work through whatever her optics professor could dish out. The course was rigorous, the concept enthralling, and thus far complete mastery of the math was just beyond her reach, but there was no time for that thought now. The test was about to start.

Her classmates all huddled around the door fell silent as the TA passed out the tests. A preliminary glance at the first question sent her mind racing through scenarios and equations. She needed to sit down and get to work.

But, the classroom door remained closed.

The throng of students pressed toward the entrance were met with a locked door. The stoic TA offered no solutions only reiterating that they were to return the test in three hours. Time was ticking. Frantically rushing to find a quiet place to focus with grades on the line and time running out, Oldenburg felt she had been thrust into a nightmare.

Though this situation is novel, the feelings of sinking into anxious desperation, are not. All these anxieties are wrapped up in a nice package that we commonly call “failure.” Despite hours of painstaking efforts, experiments go awry; results are inconclusive, but approaching and working through these failures can seem impossible.

Oldenburg doesn’t see these setbacks as failures. In fact, she takes issue with the word itself.

“Really, there is no failure in a scientific experiment,” she tells me. “Getting a result you didn’t expect is still teaching you something that contributes valuable knowledge.”

Instead of writing off physics, Oldenburg kept at it, going on to get her Ph.D in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Today, she is an associate professor of physics at UNC Chapel Hill.

While studying physics in graduate school, failure did not leave Oldenburg behind. Her department obtained a grant to undertake an innovative project — optically imaging nanorods. The objective was to get a better picture of objects within a tissue. She was tasked with “making it work.”

But the math, which looked perfect in theory, didn’t quite pan out as expected. There were so many other things going on inside the tissue that caused the rods to move differently than predicted. All the images were blurry. She was still able to publish a paper, though she found the results dissatisfying. The experiment frustrated her. It wasn’t until years later that Amy Oldenburg was able to re-examine her work as a postdoctoral student with fresh eyes.

In rethinking her original experiment, she found some interesting and useful results. They were not the results she expected, but nonetheless it was a step forward in science.

“You’re not going to get everything, there’s always going to be things you don’t understand, but you should be excited about the things you do understand and you just have to let those failures go past you.”

And that’s exactly what Oldenburg did. Now she uses her same dissatisfying results to measure densities in her lab at Chapel Hill.

To speak more about failure, I sat down with Catherine Lohmann, a distinguished turtle scientist and lecturer at Chapel Hill. In talking about failure, Lohmann couldn’t help but tell the tale of a pivotal moment in her scientific career.

She couldn’t understand it. It was supposed to work, and even if the researchers had done it incorrectly they wouldn’t be getting results like this. It didn’t make sense. It was supposed to be simple.

Lohmann and her small team of young scientists had been working with sea turtles to see how they navigate. As a person with a love for the ocean and a fascination with animal navigation, she had been drawn to the experiment, and she fell to it with avid determination.

The team set up a structure made up of a wire cage covered by a sheet that warped the Earth’s magnetic fields around a small kiddie pool. Then they let baby turtles loose in the center of the circular pool and recorded which direction they swam. Based on the way the field was warped and the normal behavior of turtles, the turtles should have been swimming east, but no one told the turtles that. Instead, they were swimming south.

“We kept getting results we didn’t understand,” Lohmann said.

After results kept turning up consistently strange, they began questioning everything. Were the wires working? Was the light distracting the turtles? Was the sheet too heavy? Lohmann and her team painstakingly picked apart everything about their experiment, looking for the fly in the ointment. They kept coming back with nothing. Slowly, doubt began creeping in that maybe the whole experiment was blown. But the data was consistent, the wires worked, the light wasn’t distracting and the sheet wasn’t too heavy. Still, the answer eluded them.

Late one night, after all the other members of the team had left frustrated, Lohmann sat down to think.

“The data is real,” she told herself.

Something was going on. They just didn’t know what.

“What we were actually seeing was something no one had thought about.” Lohmann told me.

That night, tearing her hair out and trying to understand, she asked herself: What if the turtles thought they were in a different geographic place?

“That’s when we realized the sea turtles could use the magnetic field as a map,” she said.

The idea had been out there, but no one had shown it until Lohmann and her team.

Lohmann’s early frustration with the experiment ultimately led to the discovery that allowed her to develop her career studying turtles.

Dr. Gideon Shimer, a senior lecturer and advisor at UNC-Chapel Hill, encourages scientists to find comfort in failure. Because this means, like Lohmann, you may be on the edge of something groundbreaking.

“Failure is your bread and butter,” he says when I first walk into his office.

Shimer, otherwise known as Gidi, is a tall man with a salt-and-pepper goatee. He rubs his hands together and starts in on a story from his graduate work. He spent months setting up his experiment. This project was a spinoff from a successful previous experiment with cholesterol. He was trying to develop a new study technique. But after seven months, the results were not promising.

He felt discouraged so he started working on another experiment on the side. A year in, the second experiment began heating up. Things were making sense, and he felt it could soon come to a head then, abruptly, it all stopped. One angle of trials nullified all previous efforts.

“It was tough for me mentally.” Shimer confided.

Suddenly things weren’t working and all efforts came to a halt. After that, he had to think differently about what he was doing and ultimately he discontinued that particular vein of study.

“When I encounter failure, I like to stop,” he said. “Take a day off, spend time with my family, remind myself that life is good. But then I have to get my butt back in the chair and keep going.”

In advising students, Shimer is a strong advocate for failure. He encourages his students to practice and fail so they can come back later and hopefully understand the material better.

“Failure is the nature of the beast,” he said.

In the end, Oldenburg didn’t recall what she got on that nightmare test. Ultimately, that one grade didn’t derail her scientific career. Her willingness to work past failure was much more important.

“Don’t let a bad experience turn you off from something you love,” she said.