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In science, never underestimate the learning potential of a failed experiment, says Seth Margolis of Biological Chemistry.
What inspired you to go into science?
MARGOLIS: My dad is a Ph.D. chemist and head of the Department of Biomineralization at the Forsyth Institute, a dental research institute in Boston. My uncles are scientists. So I was surrounded by science as a child, and in school, I gravitated toward the subject.
I love the freedom of thought in science and the ability it affords you to exercise your creative spirit. And people pay you to do it!
So has your science career been a smooth road to this point?
MARGOLIS: Not exactly. I went to grad school at Duke and decided to work with a cancer biologist named Sally Kornbluth. She was studying how proteins move from the cytoplasm into the nucleus, and how those events relate to mitosis and programmed cell death. I was fascinated by the idea that things move in the cell.
But science can be grueling. You start with these great ideas. Then you put them to the test and often they don’t work and you have to start over.
Why did you stick with it?
MARGOLIS: I’m lucky I had a strong mentor who encouraged me and also allowed me to go and make mistakes and learn from unexpected events. By that I mean the times an experiment fails or a hypothesis doesn’t work out as predicted.
It sounds like your mentor believed in the value of learning from both the successes and failures of science.
MARGOLIS: I like the quote that says something like, “Without failure you can’t have success.” Hockey player Wayne Gretzky put it another way: “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” In other words, trying something new will inevitably involve mistakes. But if you don’t try, you won’t get anywhere.
So the more you push forward and do it well and carefully, the greater chance down the road you have of success.
Now that you have your own lab and mentor your own students, do you practice the same philosophy?
MARGOLIS: Absolutely. I am very lucky to have had such wonderful mentors during my training. I work very hard to take what they have taught me and apply it to the mentoring of the students in my laboratory.
--Interviewed by Melissa Hendricks