Evading scientific stalemates

This week I have been thinking about a strange thing that happened in my research group. One day while I was doing my MSc, me and my colleagues we were discussing some lab results. A small change on our experimental setup provided much better images than the ones we were getting up to that point. This change, even though small, was puzzling at first. It was counter-intuitive. We quickly realized why it was improving our measurements. However, this was not the important thing. By doing that small change, our system, which at the time was just simply an imaging system, seemed to be able to tackle much more difficult experimental scenarios. We thought that we had discovered a new property of the systems we were developing. We were right.

After that initial idea, we quickly designed some experiments to verify our initial guesses. Everything seemed to work, but we were not 100% sure why. We had some general ideas, some intuitions. Our plan was to keep doing some experiments while we figured all the details. We published some papers and started thinking big. This approach could be applied to real scenarios. We started collaborating with some other groups and in the end we developed a real-life system in collaboration with them. That was published in a very good journal.

However, even though we figured out the bugging details we had at the beginning, we were never able to build a model that allowed us to predict or at least to conjecture about what could be the limits of our technique.

Fast forward ~3 years to today. We have a meeting planned for next week to discuss why our latest experiments are not providing the results we expected. After months of PhD (and MSc) students work, we are at a stalemate. Some days it seems that we are close to change something in the lab that will yield the expected improvement. Some days, after hundreds of trials, everything remains the same. Given the lack of a physical model to hold to, the group is searching with a blindfold, and I don’t think this is working at all.

If I had to make a prediction right now, I would say that the research line is dead (long live the research line!). It shouldn’t be dramatic, it is just science (sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t). However, during all this process, several students joined the group and started their MSc’s and PhD’s on the topic. This could be dramatic for them. During all this time, I have been working in quite a lot of different stuff. I missed some publications, which hurt my CV. However, when something did not work, I always had different stuff to try. I think I have a wider scope of my field because of that. In the end, I have published more than enough to write my thesis.

I guess that’s a good practice: never put all your eggs in the same basket. You need to have hundreds of ideas to get a good one. Take your time to explore them, and build strong foundations where new people can construct upon without fear of falling down.

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