Most of what my research students learn about research is that it is frustrating and nothing works and nothing makes sense.  They learn that instruments break.  They learn to hate column chromatography.  They learn that summer research is full of long hours standing in the lab not really sure what to do next.  Unfortunately, they sometimes learn that I do not always have the time/energy/patience/knowledge/experience to help them over the next hurdle.

But what I want my students to learn is:

  1. Do the critical experiment first.  Test the fundamental idea to see if it works, but then immediately do the control experiments before you get too excited.
  2. Repeat everything at least three times to avoid chasing ghosts.
  3. Designing a good experiment takes at least two tries.  There is always something you will forget.  See Rule #2.
  4. Each contribution to human knowledge is important, even if it is tiny.  We are the experts on the things that we are seeing.  No we don’t know what we’re doing.  This is incredibly scary and is an incredible responsibility.  But it is also awesome.  This is what Feynman called “the pleasure of finding things out.”
  5. Catalysis is all about walking up to the edge without falling off.  A good catalyst is inherently labile because it is good at reacting.  This means that we expect a lot of your synthetic skills.
  6. When you see something and say “that’s weird…” write it down rather than ignoring it.  Sometimes things that don’t make sense have to marinate for a little while.  See Rule #8.
  7. Catalysis is plagued by the fact that the complex you put in as “the catalyst” can change.  The catalyst precursor is not always the active species.  See Rule #1.
  8. If your theory/interpretation explains all of the data but one, then you have the wrong theory.
  9. A publishable research project has a moment that I call The Turn.  This is the critical piece of data, the important observation that forms the heart of a scientific publication.  The Turn is like an egg we want to hatch, so all of our efforts go in to building the nest around the egg, wrestling all the details into a coherent, defendable whole to keep our idea warm.  I hope you each get to see The Turn at some point so that you learn to recognize it. See Rule #1.
  10. It is so much more fun to watch you, my dear students, than to do this myself.  Science is not a lonely profession, despite the stereotypes.  I need you to tolerate the ambiguity, to argue over the results, to ride out the mishaps, and to celebrate the new discoveries with me.  See #4.
Advertisements