On New Year’s Eve, I received a call from my supervisor. He told me that, during a storm, my pigeon shed had flooded. All of my power boards and electrical cables were under about 20 cm of water. Everything was covered in dirt and muck. The pigeons were fine, but everything else was a mess.
There was a pause.
And then we both cracked up laughing.
When I was an undergrad, I learned the hard way that research doesn’t always go as planned. For my first research project, I needed to make fish exercise, then see how much time they spent having sex (this is why I love zoology). To make a male fish exercise, I was supposed to get him to swim against a current. Fish like swimming against currents, I was told. Next, pop him in with a female, and see how often he tries to have sex with her. The males of this species (Gambusia holbrooki) try to have sex every six seconds. So far, so good.
But my fish refused to cooperate. To force a male to swim against a current, I had to supervise him closely, block his path with sponges, and even then he would try to dodge my sponges and whizz around the bucket without any effort whatsoever.
Worse, my fish showed no interest in sex, regardless of whether they had been spinning around in a bucket. They just weren’t in the mood. For the entire four months of my project.
So for my Honours project, I decided to work with animal blood samples, rather than actual animals. I was told that analysing these samples would be “straightforward” because “we’ve done this heaps of times, it will only take a couple of weeks at most”. The assay did not work. It took months to make it work. Even when it did work, I wasn’t entirely convinced that it worked.
Our lab is extremely experienced with this method.
These data loggers hardly ever fail.
Black swans don’t actually bite.
Nobody has ever fallen in the lake.
Like any researcher, I have gradually learned that these phrases – no matter who says them – should never be trusted. Contrary to what we learnt at school, research is not a recipe. Research is trying to make a cake when all you have are peanuts, sugar and ham, and the oven is on fire.
My supervisor once told me that science led him to believe in God. A cruel, sadistic God, who particularly hates my supervisor.
Which brings me to my pigeons. The pigeons were meant to be a side-project. Animals that I could work with while all my other work was failing to get anywhere. Pigeons are easy to keep in a lab, easy to look after, easy to work with, we know where to get them, we’ve worked with them before…
Obviously, these statements should have been warning signs.
I began the “pigeon project” in May 2016. It was supposed to take 3 months. It took me about that long to get all the equipment together.
First, I couldn’t find suitable pigeons. Then, I had too many pigeons.
I put surveillance cameras on either side of each pigeon’s perch. The pigeons perched on the cameras.
I put cable ties over the cameras and began my recording. The pigeons slept on the floor.
Then the data-loggers failed. Then there was a heat wave. Pigeons unexpectedly laid eggs, unwrapped their data-loggers, pulled their loggers off completely. Then the air-conditioning broke.
And then, about 8 months after my 3-month project began, I got a call to say that the entire pigeon facility had flooded.
The day before New Year’s Eve, I realised – in the way that you notice something that you don’t expect to see – that the thought of quitting research after my PhD made me feel relieved. I think failure does take a toll, after a while. I’ve been doing my PhD for nearly two years now and haven’t had a complete dataset to analyse. I’ve never published my own research. I’ve reached a point where I expect everything to fail before I’ve even started. I know I’m not the only one, but that doesn’t make the idea of being a researcher forever any more inspiring.
So, when all my electrical cables were underwater, why did we laugh?
Because, in a bitter, sad, terrible way, it was pretty funny.
And because sometimes, you have to.