Resurgence and Resilience

There’s nothing like nature on a fine weekend to revitalize oneself after a rough week in the trenches laboffice. This weekend, we began Friday evening with a trip to the Neale Woods observatory to view the night sky telescopically–in particular to watch the Perseid Meteor showers.

Presentation first, fighting the mosquitos and watching the showers later

Apparently, our earthly orbit brings us into contact with the dust trail left by the Perseus comet about once a year. Despite the bad luck of a full moon competing for the night sky, we did see half a dozen meteors. Not exactly a shower, but even the drizzle wasn’t bad. We also had the benefit of a beautiful telescopic view of the moon, Saturn and its rings, and Arcturus, a very bright star in the northern hemisphere. In addition, a naturalist-guided night hike made this a unique experience.

On Saturday and Sunday, I returned to one of my very favorite haunts–one about which I had written about recently in sadness: Lake Zorinsky. After the lake was drained to try to save it from an invading species–the zebra mussel–as an empty mudpot it became a rather unappealing place to walk. It even smelled of rot.

In walking around the rapidly returning lake, I began thinking about one of the issues that has recently been discussed on OT–in particular, what makes a good scientist? Or perhaps more accurately, what makes a scientist good.

I reread Athene’s fascinating blog and the threads on “Do scientists believe in luck?” Coupled with a growing number of gripes that appear–particularly in recent threads–about “lack of luck” ruining young researchers careers, I felt that the time has come to issue my own view of what is the key element needed for a successful career in science.

“Luck,” “fate,” “being in the right place at the right time”–these are certainly things that can advance one’s career. But there are numerous scientists out there who complain about not getting those opportunities, and my experience is that a good number of them wouldn’t recognize these opportunities if they presented themselves on silver platters. In many cases, I think that the inability to recognize scientific opportunities and turn them into significant findings often point out researchers who may be in the wrong career jobs.

No, I have firmly come to the opinion that the number one criterion for being a successful scientist is similar to that of being a successful lake: Resurgence & Resilience.

Every scientist I know takes “knocks,” loses grant funding, has papers rejected. The successful scientists are the ones who don’t moan about it (at least indefinitely–we all moan and complain, that’s natural)–but rather, they are the ones who know how to pick up the pieces, to find the light at the end of the tunnel and come back with a vengeance.

It is easy to complain about “being unlucky,”–that rather absolves researchers of the need to be smart, focused, efficient, accurate and determined. Generally, I don’t buy it. Researchers who have the above-noted traits and are resilient will succeed. I just know it.

Lake Zorinsky in west Omaha, resurging recently.







About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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10 Responses to Resurgence and Resilience

  1. Absolutely. One of the things I think it is vital aspiring researchers realise is that everyone, and I mean everyone, who looks to be so successful has had setbacks. It is naive to think that if you’ve risen through the system nothing has gone wrong en route, and if you believe it then it is only too easy to think that if something has knocked you back you’re doomed to a lifetime of failure. And then you give up. So, encouraging those setting out to realise life is full of twists and turns, and if something goes wrong then maybe something else will go right even if it wasn’t what you thought you wanted, is hugely important. I’m with you all the way – resilience can lead to resurgence (although unfortunately it isn’t a cast iron guarantee). Lack of resilience certainly won’t.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Thanks for the comment, Athene. Generally speaking, those who are “fortunate” and “lucky,” but who also have the necessary skills–will succeed. At the same time, those who are “less fortunate” will also rise to the top through sheer willpower and ability. I am beginning to suspect that there are a lot of “wannabees” out in the ether who may be using the “unlucky” title to avoid having to answer for what either might be a lack of certain abilities–or in many cases, a lack of resilience.

      I’ll bet this may not be a popular thing to say, but despite what some might have us believe, a successful career in science is not a roulette wheel–nor is it a lottery. Although we would like to see more science positions available for aspiring scientists, and despite some biases and failures here and there, nonetheless the system does generally move on merit.

    • Steve Caplan says:


      I think you are correct also about the natural order of things: the post should have been entitled “Resilience and Resurgence.” I wonder what the OT policy is on changing titles? Where is RPG when I need him?

  2. cromercrox says:

    It’s like all those old clichés – How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice. And it takes years of hard work to become an overnight sensation.

  3. @stephenemoss says:

    ‘Resilience and Resurgence’ has the alliterative ring of a Jane Austen novel, indeed is it not a truth universally acknowledged that these characteristics are far more important than luck in defining success as a scientist? If fortune does have an influence, then you should add to those indefatigable qualities a love of hard graft, especially in ones early career, because as Sam Goldwyn (I think) said, the harder you work, the luckier you get.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      I’d definitely agree with that–the harder you work, the luckier you get. Which reminds me of the story about the old Jew who kept complaining to God that he never won the lottery. God told him that you need to buy a ticket…

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  5. Laurence Cox says:

    What Steve says about luck applies just as much to scientists in industry as it does in academia. There are some differences: for example, external publications are much less important (the flip-side of this is that you can also be barred from publishing novel work because of commercial confidentiality).

    I will take an example from my own career to illustrate this.

    I had already decided to go back into industry before I completed my PhD and chose to work for a medium-sized contract research company (I liked the environment, even though their salary offer was lower than several offers I turned down). About six months after I started, one of my colleagues there asked me to help him with a project he was working on. This project had come from a scientist in MoD who had been pleased with the work my colleague had done on a previous project and had asked him to look into an idea that the scientist had had about using infrared imagery to measure mechanical stresses in structures. As it happened we found that Lord Kelvin had worked out all the theory in the middle of the 19th Century, but by the mid-1970’s we finally had good enough photovoltaic (PV) infrared (IR) detectors to make a practical instrument. We were lucky because MoD were trying to develop PV cadmium mercury telluride (CMT) (without a great deal of success at that time) and were funding what was then Plessey to make PV lead tin telluride (LTT) as a back up. This mean that although Plessey were being funded to maintain their capability, MoD were not taking all their production so we could easily buy the detectors.

    I had also spotted a paper by a couple of the Plessey scientists that 1/f noise vanished at zero bias and realised that this was just what we needed in our application. We built the prototype for MoD and showed that we could measure cyclic temperature changes of less than 1 milliKelvin at room temperature (equivalent to better than 1 N/square mm in steel). Then we got funding from DTI to make some more instruments, but MoD pulled the plug on funding LTT as they had got PV CMT to work. We had a couple of years scrambling while we got PV LTT from a US supplier, but eventually were able to get PV CMT in the UK. The resulting instrument won Queen’s Awards for Technology (1984) and Export (1986) as well as being a finalist for the MacRobert award. The technology is called Thermoelastic Stress Analysis – googling on this will tell you more about it.

    There was a good deal of luck involved (or being in the right place at the right time):
    My PhD was funded by the SRC’s CAPS (Co-operative Awards in Pure Science) programme and the collaborating company where I spent over three months working during it was another contract research company; my PhD was in an area of infrared astronomy and as a result I learnt a good deal about infrared detectors; I was in the ideal position to make the link between zero bias and being able to operate a PV detector at a low frequency (a few Hz); we had a good source of IR detectors; after the protoype we were able to get funding from the DTI to develop it into a commercial instrument.

    There was also a need for resilience, particularly when Plessey told us that they were ceasing production of LTT and would we like to buy some of their last batch. We were able to afford to buy several detectors and this tided us over until we could get LTT from a US company (on a rather longer delivery time than what we were used to). All together, it took about 8 years from the initial experiments to the first sales of the production equipment.

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