Context and Variation

Context and Variation

Human behavior, evolutionary medicine… and ladybusiness.

Research Realities II: Another Door Open, Then Shut


(Click here for the introduction to the Research Realities series, and here for part I)

Back when we were first scoping out locations for our integrated research and education project, my collaborator had mentioned that some colleagues she knew had good luck working with libraries, and that they were sometimes easier to work with than schools. I decided to contact one of the libraries local to the school where I’d wanted to work to see if we might do an after school or weekend science program. I was directed to work with one particular administrator, and we set a meeting for later that week.

I came in, and we hit it off. The administrator seemed thrilled with the idea of the educational program, and we had a great conversation where she provided feedback on what would be most effective with this age group in terms of timing and content. I was careful to make sure I frontloaded our interest in research and that we would want to see if any of the education participants also wanted to be research participants – if so, we would want to collect saliva. The administrator breezed through this and showed me around the library, pointing out various rooms we could use and resources to which we would have access.

We hashed out a plan for when the events would occur, and made a plan for a follow up meeting after this administrator talked with the director of the library. I already had Human Subjects approval and would only need a change of research location amendment, so was eager to get started. I had an army of undergrads who had waited patiently through a semester of Human Subjects paperwork and back and forth with the school that eventually turned us down. I did not want to lose all these students because they waited too long to actually get to do anything.

Everything looked like it was going to be fine, and I was about to submit the amendment, when I got a very odd email from the administrator. This person had talked to the director, and the director said no, so the project was not going to happen. And that was it. Again, no number of emails or phone calls or requests to talk to the director myself had any effect. I kept thinking, “But my project is so awesome, and I’m so engaging! Why aren’t they giving me the chance to win them over?”

It seemed as though a door had been cracked open, only to be closed again, with a dresser pushed up against it on the other side to really make the point.

What devastated me about this second door was not the amount of time I’d invested – it had only been a few short weeks of effort. What hurt was that I was beginning to feel like I was letting my team down: my collaborators and the students I mentor. I was the face of the project, and apparently it wasn’t a very winning face. It was hard to not take the second defeat personally.

I don’t think there are always lessons in failures, but I do think that through these first two experiences I was learning that I had to be knocking on a lot of doors at the same time for one to really open. And as a junior professor, I didn’t have the bandwidth to be doing all that work myself, but I also didn’t have a senior grad student or postdoc to whom I could pass it. I was stuck with a funded yet homeless project and a team of undergrads stuck twiddling their thumbs.

Discussion questions:

  1. What are other ways to build relationships with gatekeepers that might save time or allow for more opportunities to meet more of them?
  2. Are there ways to distribute workload among a fairly new team of researchers?


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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