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our weeks into my first semester of college, my academic confidence was completely shredded. I had back-to-back tests in cell biology, chemistry, and calculus, and my time management skills weren’t quite there yet. I failed my calculus exam, and suddenly I wasn’t sure I had the intelligence or the ability to get a degree in science.

My story has a happy ending — at least to me. Through stress eating, meltdowns, and support from my professor and older students, I studied my way to an A-minus in that calculus class. But, even better: I learned how to fail, something I keep learning and relearning as I come to the end of my second semester in graduate school. It’s the fundamental underpinning of scientific resilience — failing repeatedly, and picking yourself up to try again.

It’s what I think is missing from many young Americans’ educational experiences, and, in part, why I think so many of us, as smart and creative and technically adept as we are, shy away from scientific research as our careers.

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Learning resilience is fundamental to a successful career as a scientist. The experiments we try will fail many times before they work, whether as an undergraduate, a PhD student, or a postdoc gunning for a faculty position. I’m dealing with this right now in my third laboratory rotation: In trying to study a protein in zebrafish, I made a mistake and all my embryos died. So, I’m troubleshooting and doing the experiment again.

But actually overcoming failure is challenging. Many students who began science degrees with me switched to other majors the first time a project failed. One failure and they were gone.

This dropout situation has lasting implications for American science. The US has plenty of scientists, but fewer and fewer are being born in the US. These foreign-born scientists are welcome, as far as I’m concerned, but with all the recent changes in immigration and visa policy, it’s an uncertain future — large numbers of our scientists-in-training could be forced to leave after they finish graduate school or postdocs.

Without these scientists, American science will suffer.

So, why are more immigrant students and fewer American students pursuing science education? Obviously, many factors play into this shift. With proposed cuts to the National Institutes of Health budget, a science career doesn’t look all that attractive to many people — the already fierce competition for money to fund research will likely become cutthroat. Research scientists make lower wages than doctors or lawyers, our early science and math education doesn’t always make these subjects interesting, and for a lot of scientists, our prime research years also happen to be our prime parenting years.

But again, I think resiliency plays a role. A 2011 study looked at resiliency in disadvantaged students in the US, Japan, Korea, and other countries and found that non-US students were more resilient. We produce too few students who can recover from academic challenges.

So how can we encourage greater resilience in students passionate about science but discouraged by failures? Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, says students who believe their intellect can grow, rather than it being fixed, are more resilient in pursuing their goals.

For me as a scientist, this happened when I realized that one failure wasn’t the end of my career; I could grow intellectually to overcome failures. However, I only came to this realization when successful older science students shared their failures with me, including one who told me how she failed an exam her first semester. Since then I’ve remembered her encouragement as my first two semesters of grad school have thrown me numerous small failures: experiments that refused to work, test scores lower than I’d prefer, and time management setbacks while learning to deal with the unique challenges of graduate science education.

Talking about personal failures isn’t enjoyable. No one wants to relive the ego-crushing bruises of a poor test score or a rejection from a coveted job or graduate program or summer internship. But we need to keep talking to younger science students, when appropriate, about our failures so that they’ll know their own similar failures aren’t career-crushers. That’s something my mentors have done for me, and it’s something I’m working on right now.

By normalizing the experience of failure in the pursuit of science, my hope is that we can keep American students in the field, so that we can remain competitive with other countries in uncertain times and in uncertain budgets. Resiliency in science and innovation is how we got to the top, and I believe that our ability to bounce back is key to staying there.

Sara Whitlock is a first-year graduate student studying structural biology at the University of Pittsburgh. 

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  • Never let your child be “labeled” at school. We raise a grandchild who is on the autism spectrum,, the school immediately put him in an IEP and labeled him “learning disabled”. I took him out of the IEP, with screaming from the school and mainstreamed him. He is brilliant and earning state awards. Don’t let the government or the public school system label your child as “disabled”, that term stays with them their entire life.

  • It is not that American students don’t know how to fail, instead it is that through intimidation and denial, American students are not allowed to fail. Instead American students have a tendency to double down on defending a failing hypothesis rather than tossing that one idea and daring to explore alternative roles. No where is this more evident than in the Global Warming debate. While there is climate change, it is not as significant nor as broadly accepted as some believe. The scientific method has been sunk under a slimy covering of political groupthink which is NOT what true science should be about. But instead of admitting that the models have not proven true, American students and now even members of the scientific community blindly support the hypothesis in absence of any real proof of significant change. This same type of political groupthink leads educated liberal parents to avoid immunizing their children in the belief there is more danger in getting childhood immunizations than in contracting the sometimes serious childhood diseases that had been mostly wiped out in this country up until now. So from these instances we learn how much damage a little social media knowledge can do and how people can be stampeded into unnecessary action for the sake of what appears to be far more about virtue signaling than in scientific proofs.

  • I knew I would be a physicist by 2nd grade. It’s a passion that will always attract a small minority of people – just like art or athletics. It’s not really a “career choice”.

    It’s also very hard, and you can’t fake your way through learning it: Each topic builds on the last. You either really, really want it – or you don’t.

    Personally, I don’t think there is a thing we can do to increase the numbers.

    • Add social media to the mix and you have a recipe for disaster. My students now learn less than they did ten years ago. I thought Idiocracy was a comedy, not a documentary.

  • Parents are told that their little Johnny is special…when he’s not. Johnny is told he can accomplish whatever he dreams to…no he can’t. Perhaps his brother Jimmy is special and can do Differential Calculus.

    I couldn’t stand most first year biology students. Two thirds did not have the aptitude in math and writing skills to be in university. The ‘mediocres’ were were aghast at getting a 2.0 mark. Some didnt respond as adults but like children…with tears. I had to remind myself that they were 18 to 21 year adults and not 12 year old pre teens in Middle school. These should be culled before university and channeled into carreer paths they will find more satisfying.

    University should be a place that encourages excellence. There are students who are indeed excellent and will contribute to the sciences.

    • Unfortunately, because it’s ridiculously expensive, college is the place where weeding out occurs. Most everyone can do relatively well in high school, and ones who do better than most and move on to college now find themselves, particularly those who enter the STEM majors, among pets who are ask at the same level or better intellectually. That can take some getting used to. Some adapt, others don’t.

  • When you are told that you need a very high GPA to get into a Grad school program in the sciences, you’re not going to stick with a science-based major if you’re not getting good enough grades. College is expensive, a BA is like a high school diploma these days, and you need an MA to get a decent job and to be paid well. It’s not that people can’t take failure; it’s that no one has the time or money to waste on classes in which they won’t do well enough.)

  • It is important to realize that one of the main reasons why students are not resilient in college is because this is in all likelihood the first academic environment where they are honestly assessed.

    Our high schools have all but relinquished their role in assessment and this is true across the entire spectrum of courses, including AP and IB coursework. Rarely will you find schools who teach and assess their AP and IB science and math classes at the same level of rigor of the examinations, which are themselves not terribly rigorous. Generally high school math and science classes are structured around procedural operations as opposed to the substantially more difficult theoretical constructs and problems. Here is a formula, algebraically rearrange this in a trivial way, plug and chug. The reason why this is done is largely political, this is something that can be done by 70% of students with an accuracy that ranges from 80-99%. It keeps students and parents happy, and as a result it keeps administrators from firing you.

    The lack of academic standards also affords students the time to focus on what really matters in our society: socializing and athletics. This is where American students get the majority of their experience in gaining resilience, as they quickly internalize the pecking order. Interestingly, this is where standards are harshly enforced. For instance students get cut from athletic teams, they are collectively punished if a student arrives late to practice, and regularly suffer the indignities of failure. These teams are not surprisingly coached by the same teachers who have no where near the same standards for their classrooms and are likely to even use their classrooms as prep time for the sports they coach.

    When students enter college, they are generally unaware of how their knowledge and skills compare to students in their same age group across the world. Interestingly, the bright American students can usually get through the introductory coursework but it is not until they take sophomore and junior math and science courses that they realize that they have critical deficiencies. This leaves them with a dilemma, either they need to work substantially harder to keep pace and address past deficiencies or they drop down to a less rigorous major. Now this is a risky proposition, because undergrad is far from free. Furthermore, their confidence has been seriously shaken and they also become susceptible to impostor syndrome, largely because it is somewhat valid. It is not clear to me that resilience is the right move in the context of how financially risky it is if failure were to occur. Much of this could be mitigated if our high schools were made more academically rigorous, but that is not going to happen. We need to stop pretending that as a society we even care about academics, we don’t.

    • Great comment. Thank you.

      School teaches skills and content. Math and writing stand out as the most important skills. Leaving aside foreign languages, almost everything else (history, geography, biology etc) is content (descriptions and narratives).

      Math is hard and cumulative. Hard as our brain is not built for it. Cumulative as you cannot do the higher level stuff (calculus) without having mastered the lower level stuff (polynomial). If you miss the train you are out.

      What passes for math in American schools is blind applications of formulas. Students never leave the safety of given formulas to explore the territory, never connect the dots, and never get a fill picture of the math landscape. They get jerked around by being taught new stuff before they really master the old stuff. They never get the full picture and feel confident in what they know. Most decide they are not good at it and that’s that. The fewer successful ones learn how to parrot their way through (give the system what the system wants). Much fewer teach themselves math in spite of all this.

      Writing is slightly more accessible as it is a matter of repeated, serious exercise and some (very few) schools/teachers do that.

      This as well as the endless doodling that passes for “creativity” in the early grades, the massive and pointless waste of time on sports activities, the sharp labeling (nerds, jocks etc) are all concerning for this father of two young boys.

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