False Starts: Count on Failure

Mike BoehnkeEven a world-renowned researcher like Mike Boehnke, the Richard G. Cornell Distinguished University Professor of Biostatistics, knows how it feels. Scary, he says.

As part of a global research team, Boehnke spent a decade laboring, without significant results, to identify the genetic variants that contribute to type 2 diabetes. "In terms of our primary objective," he says, "we failed for ten years."

In the first five-year phase of their study, he and his colleagues typed genetic markers across the genome on 800 families. They found "exactly nothing."

They spent several more years sharing findings with researchers around the world who were doing similar work. Again, Boehnke says, they found "absolutely nothing."

It wasn't until technology caught up with them—chiefly in the form of the Human Genome and HapMap Projects, which together shed light on the common patterns of human genetic variation—that Boehnke and his colleagues tasted success. In 2007, they identified nine different places on the human genome associated with a risk for type 2 diabetes. Time magazine hailed it as one of the top ten medical breakthroughs of the year.

How did they persevere? "We kept going because the people who were working on this liked each other and had fun together," Boehnke remembers. During once-a-year gatherings, usually at his home, members of the team would eat, talk science, play the guitar, and sing.

The project leaders all had tenure, which meant job security. They held onto funding, which meant they could support their teams. They had other research to buoy them. And they were lucky. "That didn't mean I didn't wake up at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat, wondering what we were going to do next," Boehnke recalls.

But above all, he says, his colleagues were smart, and they liked and respected one another. "If anybody was going to solve that problem, we were going to do it, or at least be among those who did."

To those in a similar situation today, Boehnke has this advice: "Do what you love. Do what you think is important. Know that success almost always requires failure." Most of all, "try hard to be lucky. Weight the dice so there's a good chance they'll come up in your favor." That means surround yourself with good colleagues—and keep working.

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