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The Boy and the Paper

Written for NYU Science Communication Workshop with Stephen Hall.

The Boy and the Paper

My science picked up over winter break of 2009. I was holed up on the top floor of a research building in a frozen Iowa City, night after night poring over data as a second year master’s student. I had collected patient measurements in the eye clinic for nearly a year. Stargardt’s disease was the name, phenotype-to-genotype our game. I aimed to figure out how the laboratory DNA tests (the genotype) could be used to predict the degradation of patients’ vision (the phenotype). Cluttered graphs of the million ways we looked at the data piled up near a chair littered in wet snow gear. Pots of coffee were abundant.

After the new year, I traveled to Miami for an Iowa bowl game. I spent the days Skyping with my adviser. Beach-attired family members popped in and out of the camera’s frame. We closed in on a solution to our statistics, publication in sight. We planned on submitting to a decent genetics journal. Amidst final preparations, my adviser asked that I compare all of our patient data with another gene, Complement Factor H (CFH). CFH was implicated in age-related macular degeneration, the mother of all eye diseases. If I could find a link between our data and this disease, much current literature in the field would topple. Returning to Iowa several days later, we looked again at our numbers.

A signal had been hiding in the noise. Statistical significance emerged. CFH was correlated to the disease we were studying, Stargardt’s. In the world of ophthalmology, this was huge. I printed off the results and ran to my adviser. He asked me to run the numbers again. Sprint, recalculate, print, return. Again, a signal. He told me to run to our biostatistician. Soon after meeting, he too approved. The stats were legitimate. My adviser said we would now submit the paper to the journal Nature, with New England Journal of Medicine as our back up. I then raced to work on figures while my adviser packed up to leave town. We would be in constant contact.

That night I went home bubbling. A landmark paper in Nature is of the grandest yearnings for scientists . I returned to the lab early the next morning. Plotting figures, I noticed something didn’t line up correctly. The data looked impossibly skewed. I scanned the plot again. It cried of error. The residuals were supposed to add to zero. The residuals didn’t add to zero. My heart sank.

It took a few hours to convince myself that the data was indeed wrong. I knew my adviser’s flight would land soon and we had to talk. Three options occurred to me. One, I could jump off the ledge of our tallest building. Two, I could stick with the false data and push through. Three, I could admit that my calculations short-circuited. Afraid of heights and lies, I chose the third option and called my adviser.

I broke down. Hopes of publishing big — shattered. I let down everyone. I made the bad calculations and needed to admit fault.

My adviser’s response saved me. As a veteran scientist he knew his way around this bend. He assured me that getting one’s hopes so high over a silly paper was no way to make it in the long run. Just because the paper didn’t happen now doesn’t mean it never will. And people go years and careers without such work and still do great things, still succeed. I learned from him to bullet-proof myself from the gunshots of reward if I were to survive in the sciences. I inflated myself from a depth and moved on.

A reputable journal published the results. I finished my masters degree and decided thereafter to pursue a PhD elsewhere, not in Iowa. Tunes of both defeat and victory played in my head — bells to board the next train out of town. The lesson of my studies was to remain stoic in the face of high hopes or high water. I emerged not weak, but with an armored life raft in which to ride out the tides of science.

E.L. Nylen

November 2010

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