Hello readers! While I intended to devote this week’s blog post to describing the process of creating phylogenetic trees, it would feel disingenuous to describe this week’s exciting discoveries without acknowledging this week’s frustrations. Because my intention with this blog is to offer readers an opportunity to step into the world of research (with all its discoveries and failures), I'm devoting this week's blog post to sharing my struggles with frustration and insecurities as a scientist. I am learning here that while it is important to follow research deadlines as a scientist, science may not necessarily operate according to your deadlines, and research requires diligent planning but also patience, flexibility, and a sense of humor when you encounter failure.
Early this week I received nucleotide sequences for the 16S and CO1 genes I had amplified, purified, and quantified last week, and was disappointed to discover that many of the sequences were too low of quality to be utilized in creating phylogenetic trees. While this discovery was by no means disastrous (I have enough extracted DNA to re-amplify, purify, and quantify the genes from the specimen), this discovery did set my research back nearly a week behind schedule. I had been eagerly anticipating analyzing the phylogenetic relationships between the nemertean specimen (are they all members of the same species or are some of them separate, cryptic species?), and I found myself internalizing my frustrations with this setback through self-blame (were the low-quality sequences a result of simple errors I’d made during amplification or purification?).
While it is important to critically analyze possible sources of error, it is also important to approach troubleshooting in a productive manner, and upon reflection I realized that my ruminations over my procedures were causing me to feel less engaged in my project and less confident in my abilities as a scientist. I realized I was so fixated on controlling a small component of my project that I was diminishing my curiosity as a researcher. I believe that curiosity (followed by lots of hard work) drives discovery, enables researchers to make crucial conceptual connections, and makes research a joyful (and worthwhile) experience, and I realized I needed to revive my curiosity for my project. I did so in a rather unexpected way—by attending a public lecture on the social behavior of orcas. While I do admittedly have a soft spot for charismatic megafauna, while listening to the lecture I found myself most fascinated with the species delimitation aspects of the research. The researcher described different “ecotypes” of the same orca species he’d observed—all of whom were reproductively isolated from one another and differed in their morphology, prey choices, and social behaviors—and I found my mind reeling with questions about how a species is defined. Can differing social behaviors between reproductively-isolated pods indicate the presence of multiple species? Were different ecotype members physically incapable of successfully producing offspring together, or merely socially-disinterested? I found myself longing to answer these questions by uncovering the evolutionary histories of these ecotypes via genetics, and I wondered what their phylogenetic trees would look like. My curiosity about species delimitation reminded me of my motivation for researching putative cryptic species—and I returned to my project with regained enthusiasm. My experiences this week taught me that while setbacks are an unavoidable aspect of research, setbacks also provide an opportunity to reflect upon one’s mindset as a researcher, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to learn and grow as a researcher in an academic environment that is so supportive and intellectually-stimulating.
My nemertean phylogenetic trees are (gradually) coming together, and I am excited to share my findings with you next week. Until then, check out how much my sea urchin (S. purpuratus) larvae have developed, and comment below with questions!
“Instructions for living a life./ Pay attention./ Be astonished./ Tell about it.” (Mary Oliver)