On my last evening at the Evolution meeting this year, I was once again wandering around alone when I bumped into a group of people who were chatting outside the poster tent. Earlier in the day, I had attended a talk given by one of them, and was once again really impressed by his work. The questions are really cool and the work is really well done. While sitting in the audience listening to his talk, I started to think “Man, I wish I worked on that system.” So, when I saw him at the poster session, I jokingly told him that I wanted to be his postdoc. And he said “Really? But I want to be yours!” which totally surprised me. It turns out we both had system envy.
As we talked about things more, it became clear that part of the reason for this is that, when you just see the polished talk showing the most exciting results, it’s easy to overlook all the effort that went into collecting those data, including all the failed experiments. There will always be times when you do an experiment and, for whatever reason, all the animals die right away, or no one gets infected, or everyone gets infected, or something similarly frustrating. For example, for the study that I presented at Evolution, I didn’t mention that we had to do it three times to get useful data. We were trying to characterize logistic growth of two parasites, but we missed the inflection point the first two times we did the experiment. Those “failed” experiments helped us figure out a better design for our final experiment (especially when we needed to kill animals to count spores), but it was an awful lot of work to yield no publishable data! (I should emphasize that when I say “worked”, I do not mean “got significant results”. I mean “got reliable data” – meaning, we didn’t have lots of animals die inexplicably or something like that.) And these are just the fluke things. There are the additional frustrations of establishing a new study system (figuring out how to culture things is incredibly time consuming) and a new lab (we lost an entire semester worth of work in my lab at Georgia Tech because someone had used a copper coupler on the deionized water line feeding the dishwasher – we couldn’t see it and it took a long time for us to figure out the source of the massive Daphnia death in the lab).
So, I suppose it makes sense – given that we do not include those failed attempts in our talks – that it’s easy to have a certain degree of system envy at these meetings. Perhaps if we had #overlyhonestmethods in our talks, it would help avoid this!
It does raise the question of whether I might ever switch to another system. While at Georgia Tech, I spent several years trying to set up a rotifer-parasite system. It had a lot of promise, in my opinion, but I just couldn’t get infections to work reliably enough in the lab to be willing to start working on it in a big way. And my motivation for trying to get that system set up was because there were infections in a local population, which I could use for dynamical studies. Now that I’m back in the Midwest, near good populations of my Daphnia system, I see no reason to try to work on another system. We already have more than a career’s worth of questions to address with this system, so why switch? (Besides, then I’d have to come up with a new avatar.)
Have you made a big switch in study system? If not, is it something you consider? And do you sometimes have system envy?