EliteForsk scholarship – failure is a virtue

[An expert is a person who has found out by his own painful experience all the mistakes that one can make in a very narrow field.]

Niels Bohr, LIFE 1952

This quote by the famous Danish physicist Niels Bohr (1885-1962) nicely summarizes what science is all about – generating hypotheses and putting them to the test, with the risk of finding absolutely nothing or being unable to perform the experiment as intended. This was the overarching theme at the EliteForsk award event organized by the Danish Ministry of Higher Education and Science, to honor the most excellent researchers and PhD-students in Denmark across all sciences. I won an EliteForsk scholarship of 200.000 DKK, for which I am very grateful and honored.

All 20 recipients (including me!) of the EliteForsk scholarship, together with HRH Crown Princess Mary and Minister for Higher Education and Science Tommy Ahlers. Photo: Søren Kjeldgaard

I was awarded the scholarship for my PhD project “Activity modelling of microbial communities by sequencing”, which is funded by Mads’ 10 mio. DKK VILLUM Young Investigator program. The overall vision of my project is to develop novel sequencing based approaches to measure and quantify the activity of microbes in any ecosystem. As the project is interdisciplinary and touches upon advanced bioinformatics and modelling, I decided to go abroad and visit some of the leading scientists within those fields. Going abroad is a fundamental perquisite for any upcoming scientist to excel within her or his field, not only to learn new things but also to expand your professional network. So far I have been in Italy for three months, to visit the lab of Nicola Segata, which has been a fantastic experience in every way. The EliteForsk scholarship will provide some of the funding for this trip, but also ensure that I can go abroad yet again to visit other excellent scientists within my field across the world.

And I will finish where I started – failure is a virtue. This was made clear by all five laureates of the EliteForsk award of 1.2 mio DKK as well as the invited speaker, physicists Jens Kehlet Nørskov. As a scientist you will fail many more times than you will succeed; broken instruments, study organisms aren’t doing as supposed, your data does not support your hypothesis, your paper got rejected, you did not receive the funding you applied for, etc. These failures are especially painful if you, like me, are an early-career scientist for whom those first papers are absolutely essential to establish your career. As highlighted by the laureates this is more important than ever, given the increasing number of young scientists and ipso facto increasing competition, which pushes PhD-students and their supervisors to “play safe” and perform research which does not tackle the fundamental questions in science, as these are often associated with high risk of failure. This behavior is natural given the publication bias for significant findings which arguably still exists in most fields. Tackling the big questions of science is hard and crammed with failure, making individual contributions comparatively small but ever so important. As put by Jens Kehlet Nørskov [… I would rather contribute one brick to an important bridge, than building an entire house of my own …]. Failure should be welcomed as an important part of the scientific method and be published for the rest of the field to learn from it, whether it is due to non-significant results or some unexpected problems arising during experimentation. So far, I have not published a single paper for my PhD project, several experiments have failed me, and many of my ideas have been wrong. But I have learned a lot from it and look forward to many more years of failing and sharing my failures with the scientific community.

Read more:
Short biography and project description (ministry website, in danish)

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Thomas Yssing Michaelsen

Thomas Yssing Michaelsen

PhD student
Wandering the greyzone between microbiology and biostatistics, where I develop novel methods to analyze “omics”-data from microbial ecosystems.
Thomas Yssing Michaelsen

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