Numbers Game

I am currently working on a project at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California. I don’t want to bore you with the details, so I will just mention that I am imaging cancer cells. It took me about half a year to make the samples and optimize the setup for this measurement. Finally, everything was in place for me to make the measurements, and I could almost see the light at the end of the tunnel. Well, not quite. I spent the next few months imaging them, but could not get the result that I was expecting. I seem to have hit a wall and can’t move forward. In addition, I am the only person leading the project, so no one can really help me troubleshoot. I was getting anxious and depressed, I didn’t have much time left in Berkeley, and I was really counting on finishing the project before I leave. I felt that I was letting my advisor and my colleagues down.

One day when I was reporting my progress to my advisor, I voiced my frustration to him. He was very understanding, reassured me that everything that I was doing was on the right path, and that most experiments don’t work on the first try, it is in fact a numbers game. The fact that with some cells I got almost ideal results, but with others it didn’t even come close, shows that there is a great variability in these cells, and if I image enough of them, sooner or later, there will be one that gives me the result I want. It is also worth noting that there is no shortcut to this project, cells are on the order of tens of micrometers, while the features that I look at are on the order of tens of nanometers, a 3 orders of magnitude difference, so there really is no way to go about it other than with brute force.

With the renewed confidence that if I spend enough time on it, I will eventually get the result I wanted, I spent the entire Memorial Day weekend in the lab, diligently and patiently imaging those cells, while accepting that every failure along the way is just part of the game. Maybe my efforts moved the science gods, I finally got the result I had been waiting for all this time on Sunday afternoon. I think that a change in the mindset and putting in the time and effort were both needed to make it happen. Before, when I start imaging a cell, I would hope that this could be the one, and I would be really disappointed when it didn’t work out that way. So even though I was putting in the time and effort, it was really mentally and emotionally draining when I was doing the measurements. With the new mindset of believing that this is just a numbers game, I became more willing to accept the failures and more calm when facing new challenges.

Actually I recall a few other times in my scientific career when the bulk of my days were spent doing such grunt work, and it required a lot patience to play the numbers game. For example, when I work on graphene exfoliation, I would exfoliate thin layers of graphite onto a tape, then spend the next few hours on the microscope looking for tiny patches of monolayers. Most people outside of science seem to have this idealistic view of scientific discovery, being the first person to discover or invent something seems so romantic and heroic, however, what they don’t know is that a good amount of work that actually goes on can be quite repetitive and not glamorous at all.

I digress. After the success in the lab, I start to think that maybe the numbers game can be applied to other aspects of life too. One very obvious example to me is dating. Disclaimer, I do not view dating as a game, I would very much like to meet someone I like and settle down. However, because that hasn’t happened yet, I need to play the numbers game to get there. I hate going on endless first dates, and going through breakups, but with the new mindset, I should see it all as a part of the numbers game. Because if I don’t put myself out there, I will never meet my future partner, just like if I stop my experiments in frustration, I will never get the result I want, in fact I will get no results whatsoever. With each failed relationship, I used to let that failure and frustration compound inside me, and that made it even harder to start new relationships. If I remind myself that dating is just a numbers game, don’t have a high expectation at the beginning of a relationship, let it develop organically through time, and if it doesn’t work out, I should just accept it and move on, I believe next time I will have a much better experience entering a new relationship.

So many things in life are just like doing experiments or finding a partner. While we would love for things to work out in the first try, most of the time they will manifest themselves as numbers games. We accumulate experiences and build connections. When starting on a new endeavor, don’t have the high expectation that it will work out exact the way we imagined immediately. It is important to stay calm and patient while going though iterations and readjust yourself after each failure. It is the only way to grow as a person. Remember that while it may take a few tries to get there, if you don’t try you will never get there. This is what we are born to do anyway, right? To learn from our mistakes, and with each failure, we grow into better versions of ourselves.


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