Live & learn: Myrna Bunte

Failure is useful. Therefore, this feature is about what didn’t work out.
Illustratie Stijn Schreven

A botched experiment, a rejected paper: such things are soon labelled as failures in academia. As for talking about them – not done! But that is just what WUR scientists do in this column. Because failure has its uses. This time, we hear from Myrna Bunte, a PhD researcher in Nematology.

‘It happened in May last year. At that point, I’d already been working on my PhD research into vaccines against parasitic worms for three years. As I was working in the lab, a lab assistant came up to me with a question about my DNA cutting and pasting. There was something wrong with the fragments of DNA (primers) that I had designed for her, she said. I promised to look into it later.

That night I woke up with a start. I suddenly realized that I had used the same design strategy for the fragments of DNA for the lab assistant as for my own research. They were the basis for several experiments and student projects.  All the results had been negative. Was it possible that there was something wrong with the fragment of DNA the whole experiment was based on? In the dead of night I jumped out of bed and ran to my laptop to check everything. The lab assistant was right: two DNA letters were missing, which might explain the negative results. I felt pretty stupid. I was doing that sort of thing with DNA virtually every day as a third-year PhD candidate. I considered it to be second nature to me. How could I have done it wrong without realizing it? I felt ashamed of myself.

At the same time, the stress was mounting up because I was working on the last experiments in my research before writing my thesis.

In the dead of night, I jumped out of bed and ran to my laptop to check everything. The lab assistant was right

The next day I confessed it all to my supervisor. He calmed me down and said such things happen.

In the weeks that followed I had sleepless nights worrying about the planning for repeating the experiment. As it turned out, I worked very efficiently in those final months by concentrating entirely on that experiment. This time it went well and the tests produced great results. It gave me some grey hairs, but in the end I could still include that data in my thesis.’

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