About the success rates of (research) ideas

About the success rates of (research) ideas

Everyone has ideas. And some of them are good, some are ridiculous, and some are even brilliant or disastrous. In the scientific language, ideas get translated into hypotheses which are then explored with certain methods to achieve a result. That framework sounds straightforward, but the actual conceptualization makes it obvious that behind every decision waits an indefinite amount of variables that could interfere with getting the desired results or any results at all. So what makes an excellent researcher? Is it the ability to formulate a hypothesis that can be safely explored with the available methods? Or is it the ability to master the methods to solve any upcoming issues? Or is it the ability to keep any hypotheses to oneself until achieving the desired results? I had some thoughts about my own success rate of proposed research ideas and whether it is something I should be worried about (hint: I am not worried).

“The value of an idea lies in the using of it. “ (Thomas Edison)

For my Ph.D., I was lucky enough to gather lots of data early on. One of my first experiments was a survey-type study which, almost by default, delivers some useable data. Another experiment picked up on the first one and turned the onetime snapshot into a 12-month experiment where I focused on the seasonal dynamics of soils. Again, I collected lots of data in a short time. Those projects relieved me from deadline anxiety, and many new hypotheses popped up in my head. Having enough data to finish a Ph.D. thesis makes your head go wild. At least I was seeing new opportunities at every corner. Going through some old meeting notes, I realize how many of them I had, and how much of them I turned into a successful experiment. The rate is close to 50%, meaning that half of the ideas I proposed to my supervisors resulted in a dead end. Some of them failed because of poor planning on my side and a lack of experience. Others failed over things outside of my control (at least I like to believe so). But let’s see what is in the box:

Failed ideas/hypothesis:

  • Small electric currents improve the growth of mycorrhizal fungi.

Inspired by the soil’s redox potential and tiny currents in trees (which can even power nano-devices), I was wondering whether mycorrhizal fungi would react somehow to this stimulation. I was planning to put two electrodes inside in-vitro cultures of AMF and attach a small current. I do not have the exact details in my head, but it would have been something around a few mV and mA. I already started building some circuits, but every step I completed led to another challenge. I realized that I should refrain from copper electrodes because of the potential release of copper ions into the medium. I figured that graphite would be a suitable substitute but had trouble finding some proper graphite sticks. I was also unsure of how to include the electrodes into the axenic culture system while keeping it sterile. Also, having a self-built circuit hooked up to a mid-sized 12V battery or a laptop charger sounds like a nightmare in terms of Risk Assessment. Looking back, those are all obstacles that could be overcome. But at some more stressful stages of my Ph.D., I discarded the project, thinking the potential outcome would not be worth the efforts.

  • The genetic variability within the same AMF isolate can lead to diverging functional diversity.

It is well studied that the same AMF species collected at different locations can have significant differences for the host’s mycorrhizal growth response. Now I was wondering about the potential of the same isolate to “split up” functionally. For this, I aimed to collect 100 spores of the same AMF isolate and add 10 spores to a new host plant in sterilized soil. I would grow the plants for some months and then harvest the plants and measure the biomass. Then I wanted to use the spores of the best and the worst performing pot and repeat the same game for the next generation. I hoped that by using this approach I would end up with two very specialized isolates. I started growing my first generation where I used rather big pots and added 10 dwarf-tomatoes seedlings of the same size. Halfway through the first generation, I realized that the sterilized substrate we were using at the time was not so sterile after all. I not only propagated AMF but also heaps of nematodes. This was a disaster for such a delicate experiment. I did some quick maths about the time it would take to sterilize new substrates, the growth period of each generation, my remaining time for the Ph.D.

  • The edible mushroom King Stropharia works as a nematicide for urban farms.

Most of the urban farms that I visited for my surveys were working with raised beds and lots of self-made compost. And most of them also had genuine issues with root-knot nematodes. Growing edible mushrooms myself, I knew that some mushrooms feed on nematodes via specialized cells. The raised beds also have lots of organic content that would allow mushrooms to grow in them. However, mushrooms do not well in sunlight, but plants need lots of it. One exception to this is the mushroom King Stropharia which also thrives in half-sunlight conditions. My idea was to spread mycelium of this mushroom under some plants and grow veggies and mushrooms at the same time while getting rid of those nasty nematodes. I got a King Stropharia in-vitro culture and propagated it on grains, then on wood chips. I used the wood chips and spread it on some raised beds in a community garden. I inoculated half of each bed with the colonized woodchips and the other half served as a control and I inoculated with blank woodchips. I still think that is a great idea, however, I started the experiment a bit too late. By the time I had propagated enough mycelium, it was already Australian springtime, therefore probably too hot and dry for the mycelium to establish. One month earlier and it might have been a very different situation.

But failure is only a failure if you refuse to learn from it. Apparently, it took Edison about 10,000 failures to invent the light bulb. For every failed experiment during my Ph.D. thesis, I was one step closer to a successful one which will be published in the coming month. It is easy to be categorized as someone who is just talk but no action. Honestly, I could not care less. I am happy that I can always come up with new ideas and even happier that I have a 50% success rate. And I am 100% certain that my supervisors think the same. Even big companies have some big fails and searching for some of them made me feel even better. Just so many product names that I still remembered being advertised, but which just vanished into thin air. Just focusing on Google, there is: Google Video, Google Video Player, Google Plus, Google Buzz, Google Answers, bump, Nexus Player....and I guess the same things are true for every other big company. The actual product failure rate is around 40% and most of them even went through intensive marketing analysis. It seems as if sometimes the universe just does not want our ideas to happen (yet). For the future, I will see my own and other people’s “failures” in a different light. The lightbulb of Thomas Edison that took him over 10,000 failures to invent.

Picture: King Stropharia (Stropharia rugosoannulata). Kindly provided by Ann B. (Ann F. Berger) at Mushroom Observer, a source for mycological images.

ideas research phd
Published 4 years ago