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Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow- lessons from an experimental mishap

By Jocelyn Lavallee

I study mechanisms of carbon stabilization soils, and throughout my PhD, most of my research has been in the laboratory rather than in the field. In the summer of 2011, I wrote a successful research proposal to perform a field experiment in the San Luis Valley of Colorado. I wrote it because I was determined to add a field component to my dissertation, despite the misgivings of some of my committee members. While I was concerned that my research was too small-scale and focused on laboratory experiments, they warned that a field experiment would be very difficult because environmental complexity could overwhelm the types of changes I would be trying to measure. In the end, the thing that ended up going wrong wasn’t what any of us would have predicted.

Photo: A fellow scientist working at one of the sites in the San Luis Valley, August 2010

When I found out that my proposal had been funded, I was extremely excited. This was my first successful proposal, and it meant that I would have the opportunity to carry out an experiment that I myself had designed.  It was such a privilege, and I wanted to take complete advantage of it by doing the best job that I could. I set to work acquiring my materials and working through logistics. The timing of the award meant that I had only one month to get the experiment in the ground before the soil was completely frozen by the winter weather.  It took a lot of careful budgeting, planning, and physical labor (mostly by my wonderful field hand/boyfriend), but I was able to pull it off.  By late October of 2011, I had 42 soil collars in the ground at two different sites near Fort Garland.  Now I only had to wait for spring to begin measuring respiration on the soils, and my experiment would be up and running.

This was my first successful proposal, and it meant that I would have the opportunity to carry out an experiment that I myself had designed.  It was such a privilege[.]

After 7 months of waiting I finally made what I thought would be the first of many drives down to the sites. I took my mom along as a field hand, both because I needed some help with sampling and because I had been talking her ear off about this big project I’d put together. She has a PhD in chemistry and loves to learn, so needless to say she was thrilled. (Actually, I think she is just a great mother and was humoring me.) We parked near the first site, got ready, and walked out to the spot where my soil collars were.

The original soil collars.Photo: Before, Fall 2011

The soil collars now.Photo: After, Spring 2012. Note my mom standing by the same trees in the background, for comparison

Or had been. Where were they?! I walked back and forth, perplexed. I double-checked my map and the nearby landmarks to make sure we were in the exact right place. We were. After a minute of confusion, I noticed a tiny corner of some bright pink flagging sticking out of the dirt. I had used this flagging to identify which collars were controls, so I knew that one of my collars had been right there. I stepped back, and it hit me. All of my collars were right where they had been, but they were buried. Someone had come to my site and covered every single one of my collars in several inches of soil, until there was no trace of any experiment having been there.

Someone had come to my site and covered every single one of my collars in several inches of soil, until there was no trace of any experiment having been there.

My first reaction was fear. In lieu of explaining the complicated land ownership dynamics in that area, I will just say that it is a popular spot for people who do not want to be found or bothered, since it is fairly isolated and undeveloped. We had just driven by a trailer parked on cinder blocks on the side of the road, and I suspected that whomever had done this might be in there, and might have heard us get out of the car. I told my mom that we needed to go, so we went back to the car and drove back to town to think about what to do. Once we returned to “civilization” and were no longer at risk, it all set in. Due to the nature of my experiment, the fact that the samples were buried for an extended period of time meant that they were compromised. My experiment was gone.

I was crushed.

In science, stuff happens. Things go wrong. You’d be hard-pressed to find a late-career scientist who couldn’t talk your ear off about their experimental mishaps.  In an effort to make myself feel better, I asked professors and postdocs to do just that.  I heard a lot of stories, some just as tragic to hear about now as the day they happened.

One professor explained that, long ago, he and his graduate student spent countless hours and thousands of dollars injecting isotopic labels into a stand of trees, only to find them all cut down and carted away the next week due to an error on the part of the land managers. A fellow graduate student told me about an ongoing field experiment in Mali, Africa which required him to live there for several months each summer. With the recent eruption of violence, he could no longer return to Mali to finish his project and there was no way of knowing if he would be able to return anytime soon. Other stories about failed methodologies – rain-out shelters that didn’t keep rain out, cattle getting through fencing that surrounded “ungrazed” plots, fertilization that had no effect on plants whatsoever – were everywhere.

I had heard the “stuff happens” speech (typically substituting a cruder term for ‘stuff’) several times before I even began research.  Teachers and advisors warned that things would go wrong in experiments; methods would be imperfect or the results would be the opposite of what one expected.  I had even heard stories similar to mine. But none of this prepared me for what it would actually feel like when it did happen to me.  It seemed so unfair to have so much hard work reduced to a pile of dirt in an instant.

At the same time, I felt guilty for not being more cautious and working to prevent this from happening.  It was even a little embarrassing to have to keep telling people what had happened, and to then answer their line of questioning about the precautions I had or hadn’t taken.  But once a few weeks passed and those feelings began to fade, it proved to be an invaluable experience. While I can’t say I’m glad it happened, I am glad that I had this chance to grow as a scientist. I now know that, yes, stuff really does happen.

The tricky thing is that you can’t let your knowledge of the fact that things will go wrong get in the way of your future work. It’s ok, and probably helpful, to expect problems to arise.  But there is a difference between precaution and pessimism.  You have to face the unknown with the attitude that you can work around whatever issues arise, or repeat the experiment if necessary. And from time to time, unexpected events or results actually lead to better experiments in the end.  The understanding that things will go wrong can be freeing. Trying to design the perfect experiment and account for every possible source of error can be a crippling exercise. It is better to remain alert and flexible than to over plan, especially when so many aspects of experiments are unpredictable. As scientists, we must think on our feet rather than get our feet stuck in the mud.

Trying to design the perfect experiment…can be a crippling exercise. It is better to remain alert and flexible than to over plan, especially when so many aspects of experiments are unpredictable. As scientists, we must think on our feet rather than get our feet stuck in the mud.

For me, a tight budget (in terms of both money and time), won’t allow me to repeat this particular experiment. However my flexibility has come in the form of finding new ways to answer my research questions. My advisor and I used what data we could get from the work I did in the San Luis Valley to inform our next steps.  Since the mishap last May, we have designed three new experiments and gotten funding for all three. I think that my advisor and I made the right decision when we decided to accept what had happened and move on, without losing any of our optimism.

Somehow, we all have to find a way to remain optimistic about our future projects. We may laugh about it, we may use our mistakes to our advantage, or we may be downright determined and willing to tweak our methods until they work. Most often, it’s a combination of all of those strategies and more. I keep coming back to Albert Einstein’s famous quote: “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research.” Science is the study of the unknown, and often the unpredictable. We rarely know what to expect, and that is a beautiful thing.

Jocelyn Lavallee is PhD candidate studying with Rich Conant at NREL. She likes studying soils using very different methods, from digging them up to shooting them with x-rays at the synchrotron.

One comment

  1. David Godwin

    Great post! I know through my own soil respiration research in the southeast that field work is often quite a challenge. I’ve had armadillos dig up my PVC collars, rodents gnaw the collars to pieces, and ants infest the surrounding soil. Environmental challenges like lightning, mosquitoes, 100 degree heat, escaped inmates, venomous snakes, and ticks only add to the excitement! Good luck with your continuing research and I’m glad you stayed safe out there.

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