Opinion: Failure can teach valuable lessons, lead to opportunities

January / February 2019 | Volume 18, Number 1

Opinion by Fogarty Director Dr Roger I Glass

Does anyone’s career go exactly as planned? Mine certainly has not! But I wouldn’t change a thing. Every experience - whether stunning success or abject failure - has led me to where I am today.

It was my pleasure to recount some of my biggest blunders with a group of my peers on a panel at the recent American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene annual meeting. The goal was to provide unfiltered reflection on the importance of learning from failure - how to recover, apply the lessons learned and figure out how to move on in a positive way from the unexpected results. It could be argued that our ability to respond to failure is one of the most important skills we can develop.

For my colleague Dr. Steve Meshnick, of the University of North Carolina, failure came early in his research career in the form of two dead cows. He thought he had discovered a cure for sleeping sickness - which would have been a significant accomplishment - but alas, when he administered the drug, the cows immediately went into convulsions and died. Not a promising start…

He eventually determined that his skills were better suited to epidemiology than lab science, and he’s gone on to make impressive discoveries in the field of malaria.

Early-career female researcher discusses her poster with Fogarty Director Dr. Roger I. Glass.  

Fogarty Director Dr. Roger I. Glass advises early career
scientists to follow their passions and find knowledgeable
mentors to help guide them on their way.

Failure is useful, Meshnick maintains, to achieve personal growth and self-awareness. He says he’s learned that persistence is a helpful trait for researchers seeking grant funding. Another tip is to juggle multiple projects, so if one fails, you have others to keep you occupied. Although rejection is painful, he says it’s helped him gain insights into how to improve his research proposals. In one case, he was forced to collaborate with a team of modelers, which has led to a long and fruitful partnership. Finally, he suggests scientists try not to take failure as a personal affront.

Figuring how to make lemonade out of lemons saved the career of my friend, Dr. Gail Cassell, now a senior lecturer at Harvard Medical School. She left a tenured position in academia to head Eli Lilly’s infectious disease drug discovery and clinical development activities. Shortly after she arrived, the company made painful cuts, including to her unit. A timely phone call out of the blue requesting a supply of old drugs for an ongoing clinical trial of multi-drug resistant TB helped her forge a new path. It was thought that MDRTB was too expensive to treat in low- and middle-income countries but this study, using drugs that were a half-century old, showed participants could be cured. That was the catalyst that she says began one of the largest philanthropic efforts in pharma’s history.

Gail’s advice to young scientists: be open to unexpected opportunities no matter how busy you are, and make it a priority to establish a network of peers and mentors.

I was amused to hear that Dr. Peter Agre, who won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, received a “D” in the subject in high school. As the runt of the litter in his large family, he says he learned early on that he could benefit from the wisdom of others. A conversation with another parent at his daughter’s school and a casual chat with a friend at a stop on the annual family road trip both led to valuable collaborations that directly contributed to his prize-winning scientific discoveries.

For my part, developing a potentially life-saving rotavirus vaccine, only to have it crash and burn when it was found to cause intussusception in some children, was devastating. But failing is an important learning experience and an essential part of growing up. My advice for early career scientists is to follow their passions and find knowledgeable mentors to help guide them on their way. Also key, is maintaining a sense of humor, especially during the tough times.

One of the session’s attendees reminded us of a lesson on the importance of optimism in overcoming failure, learned during the historic smallpox eradication campaign. In the words of the inestimable Dr. Bill Foege, “Recruit people who are too young to know it can’t be done.”

More Information

“Fireside Chats with Global Health Greats: The Importance of Learning from Failure,” was a session of the 2018 annual meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH). The panel discussion was organized by Dr. Jonathan Parr, of the University of North Carolina, and Dr. Jessica Manning of NIH​.

  • Recordings: Fireside Chats with Global Health Greats: The Importance of Learning From Failure via YouTube
  • Session Information: Session 24 - Fireside Chats with Global Health Greats: The Importance of Learning From Failure
    October 29, 2018
    Description: This symposium provides a diverse group of respected leaders in global health a platform for unfiltered reflection on the importance of learning from failure. Leading figures from the NIH, industry, and academia will share stories of failure from their own careers and reflect on the impact of their response to challenges. Rather than focusing on their achievements, they will reflect on how failed experiments have led to scientific discovery, unexpected results stimulated policy, and funding challenges illuminated new areas of research.Dr. Glass will reflect on his career at the NIH, with a focus on the challenges faced during large studies of rotavirus vaccine. Dr. Cassell will share stories from a career dedicated to TB drug development and delivery, including reflection on her experiences at the intersection of academia and industry. Dr. Meshnick will discuss how failure as a lab scientist led to a successful career as an epidemiologist. A physician trained in basic molecular and cellular biology, Dr. Agre successfully pursued the elusive Rh antigen only to find his purified Rh contaminated by an unknown polypeptide. Through persistence, good luck, and due to the wisdom of friends, failure turned into a long-sought success. The session will conclude with a moderated Q&A session that includes all four speakers.
    • Symposium Organizer 
      Jonathan B. Parr
      University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC, United States
    • Co-Chair
      Jessica Manning
      National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD, United States
    • Lessons from rotavirus vaccine trials 
      Roger I. Glass
      National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD, United States
    • Overcoming adversity at the academic-industry interface 
      Gail Cassell
      Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, United States
    • Rolling with the punches in academia: There's no success like failure 
      Steven R. Meshnick
      University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health, Chapel Hill, NC, United States
    • Expect the Unexpected 
      Peter Agre
      Johns Hopkins University, Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, MD, United States
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