Fear factor

You’ve written your code, run it on some test data, got some good results and decide the time has come to write up your work for an article. You open the word processor and suddenly…you’ve overwhelmed by the feeling that everything you’ve done is complete rubbish and could be so much better.

Does anyone else suffer from this psychological problem or is it just me? I feel that this is a fundamental difference between computational results and wet lab results. A piece of software is never finished. You rarely get it perfect first time. You will always be improving the code and committing the latest version to CVS. You could even rewrite the whole thing in a completely different way. The finality of a published article doesn’t sit well with this development process. On the other hand, a wet lab result is the end. You either clone, express and crystallise your protein, or you don’t. If you don’t – no result.

Somehow the computational biologist has to reach an endpoint with which they are satisfied and move on. Otherwise, you’d never write up anything that you did and the world would never know how brilliant you are.

9 thoughts on “Fear factor

  1. dcsf

    This is called “the creative process.” I’ve been a writer for 25 years and I feel this way every single day. The question is not so much the feeling, which I believe is absolutely SOP, but why we keep doing it!

  2. chris

    ditto on wet work. I finally started to get over this syndrome by just writing everything and anything at all relevant to the work at hand. Gradually a respectable manuscript begins to take shape. Benefits are that a.) something gets started (exhilarating)and b.) you get to write it just the way you like (at least at first). A win-win solution!

  3. Steve

    Having done both, I agree with Deepak that there is not so much difference. One can always do more experiments or controls or replicates.

  4. amy c.

    yes of course. a lot of it’s mitigated by deadlines & pressures from grants, colleagues, etc. in their absence it seems reasonable to chuck everything into a file and forget it for seven or eight years, at which point you’re apt to find it and say, ‘hm, that was good, too bad I never finished it,’ and of course by then it’s usually too late to go back.

  5. chris

    Like others, I get this way for both wet and dry work – the wet being worse because you have that niggling feeling that you’ve just frittered away the equivalent of a family’s yearly budget, which your lab can’t really afford. Especially when there’s lots of interpretation of the data involved (microarrays, anyone?).

    My main concern is usually that other people are following up on my data or hypotheses, and that I’m potentially wasting all their precious time (and putting a dent in their careers, too). That keeps me up at night.

    I think the main problem is being too close to the ball. After thinking intensely about something for a period of time, it becomes so obvious to the point of being trite. I have great difficulty in stepping back and judging my work objectively – seeing both its utility, general interest and flaws. I guess that’s what good colleagues are for: you can leave a manuscript with them, or get them to sit in on a lab talk, and ask for some outside advice. Low BS tolerance levels are invaluable to this.

  6. nsaunders Post author

    It’s been years since I published work based on (my own) wet lab data – perhaps I’ve forgotten how it feels. Seems like most of you worry about publishing experimental work as much as computational.

    I still feel though that the aim “write code to do X” is different from the aim “clone, sequence and purify product of Y”, in that the latter has a clear end point that you either reach or you don’t. Whereas with the former, reaching the point where “it seems to work” doesn’t necessarily feel like the end.

  7. Deepak

    I remember the time a colleague of mine (by that time, my last wet lab experiment was long forgotten) had done what he thought was his last set of experiments before he graduated. At the end of it, he realized that there were a few more experiments he could do to make things even better. One year later, when he was finally done, I am sure he wished he had never started.

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