Success in any field is largely about taking risks. While I have always been somewhat of a risk taker, my time in Vietnam really helped put things in perspective.
As a result, I’ve gone out on professional limbs that very few people would.
My government job with NIH provided me with guaranteed employment and science funding, but I gave all that up to pursue what most of my peers viewed as a real long shot.
My sequencing experiment could have failed, and I would have been left without a source of income, but I believed so strongly that my method would work that I was willing to take the risk.
The biggest obstacle I continually face is the static resistance to new ideas and new approaches.
If you look at the history of breakthroughs in science and medicine, almost everything that’s turned out to be a major development was initially attacked by the establishment — mainly because it was a threat.
Thomas Kuhn wrote about the stages of paradigm shifts in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: First a new idea is attacked then it’s reluctantly accepted. Along with the acceptance comes denial that it was ever an issue to begin with and a bit of historical revision that it was never that big of a breakthrough.
A great example of this can be seen through the story of Barry Marshall, the Australian physician who discovered that bacteria causes stomach ulcers. At the time of Marshall’s breakthrough, the whole medical establishment believed that ulcers were caused by stress, spicy foods, and too much acid.
In addition, the whole pharmaceutical industry was based on this premise (antacids were sold to treat stomach ulcers). The last thing they wanted the cause of ulcers to be was bacteria — so Marshall and his theory were severely attacked over and over again.
Finally in 1984, he drank a whole petri dish of bacteria to prove his point. He developed severe ulcers, and it was slowly accepted that bacteria was the cause of not only stomach ulcers but also of stomach cancer.
Marshall finally received the Nobel Prize in 2005 for his discovery, but it was only through that kind of perseverance that he was able to prove his point and overcome the opposition.
This phenomenon, unfortunately, is not unique to science. Life is about competition. Certain people intensely dislike others because they’re either successful or do things differently.
Politicians get this all the time for picking one party over another. It’s discouraging that people work at this basic level, but that’s part of humanity.
You really need to believe in yourself and not let others’ opinions define you.
Excerpt from Getting There: A Book of Mentors by Gillian Zoe Segal. Published by Abrams Image. Text © 2015 Gillian Zoe Segal.
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