“Practice! Practice! Practice!”: What Piping And Patch-Clamping Taught Me About Perseverance

Yeah, I like alliteration. And the use of a colon. And the kind of bullshit title more befitting of an airport bookshop.

But please allow me this one indulgence as I open up my blog again to fulfil my New Year’s Resolution to write more.

Seeing as blogs are time-consuming, easily given up on, old-fashioned, even obsolete, I thought I’d start with a bit of self-reflection. What earthly reason would keep me writing one? What does it mean to persevere?  And what’s that got to do with piping and patch-clamping?

Anecdotally, I see a tendency among people who lucked out academically in life’s lottery (thanks to any number of privileges) to avoid things they find too hard, to focus on their strengths. I see this tendency in the three A-level abandonment of science/arts/social sciences/insert appropriate. I see this tendency in the blasé monolingualism of most highly-educated people in Britain. I see this tendency in myself.

Throughout school and even at university, I wasn’t often challenged. This was my own fault, resulting from avoiding genuinely challenging things. Examples include not getting my French back to fluency, always choosing cardio over strength training, giving up on learning to code, repeatedly making the same meals, and failing to maintain my Gàidhlig literacy.

So I’m going to talk about two things in my life I found hard, how they challenged me, and what they taught me about perseverance.

Three months ago I moved to London. Despite being in England the past three years, with regard to London I was basically fresh off the ferry. I was such a bumpkin that for the first week I got a weird thrill of excitement/vertigo going up the really high escalators on the underground. I’ve even decided to call the section of this blog dedicated to real life teuchter-on-the-tube.

Worst of all, though, my virgin lungs couldn’t cope with the smoggy, sticky London air, resurrecting my asthma, giving me a chronic cough, making me wheeze like I was on forty a day.

But I was doing a PhD in neuroscience. And I was learning to patch-clamp. And for that, I needed breath control.

Whole cell patch-clamp is a notoriously fiddly technique which involves manouvering a thin pointed glass electrode onto a cell membrane so that it just touches it. Then you gently suck to create a high resistance gigaohm seal between the electrode tip and the patch of cell membrane it touches, before sharply sucking to make the electrode solution continuous with the inside of the cell so you can record the electrical events going on within it.

Getting a gigaseal

Suffice to say, there’s a bajillion things that can go wrong.

But so lungfucked was I, I would start gasping, couldn’t get a seal let alone record any events. Weeks and weeks went by and I made no progress, getting no data. All the while, the undergrad opposite me was patching ten cells a day.

This was demoralizing and made me deeply question why I was in science. Not because I thought I was useless. I knew everyone found it a difficult, frustrating technique at first. But I had seen someone try and fail to learn this technique in another lab. I was worried I didn’t have the mental fortitude, the ability to rationally persevere, to troubleshoot, to overcome failure.

I would come home to my rip off London flat, depressed of another wasted day. I knew science was difficult, I knew with any new experiment, any new technique, you had to climb up the learning curve while still sliding off. But a scientist had told me once I was too emotionally involved in my experiments to be cut out for research. I was so impatient and eager to get things right that I couldn’t hack things going wrong, resorting to despair. My uncertainty about not being cut for science wouldn’t go away, was magnified by the thousands failures each new day brought.

My problems with patching brought me back to my teenage self and my attempts to learn a musical instrument. On the island, tuition on the chanter and the bagpipes (but no other instrument) was free and offered universally. Presumably as part of some council quest to revitalize the region’s historical renown for producing good pipers.

But when music tuition is offered universally, it will produce some poor pipers too. I think I must have spent at least five years on the practice chanter, playing the same shitty 6/8 and 2/4 marches. It was my own fault. The only practice I ever did was in the taxpayer-subsidized lessons so no surprise progress was slow. But I watched others – including brothers – around me get ahead quickly, rush onto the goose (no drones), then onto the proper bagpipes. I knew at a very young age I was musically inept (I’m fortunate enough to be both tone-deaf and colour-blind), but one benefit of the 19th militarization of pipe music is that you don’t necessarily need to be that musical to play it (but not to play it well, of course). So I would memorize the sequence of finger movements, and bosh them out without thought to beat or timing. And rush impatiently through the tune to minimize the chance of forgetting it halfway through.

Not a practice goose

In the end and after many lessons, I progressed to the bagpipes but never got beyond a very junior role in the school pipe band. I had proved my point. I could “succeed” at something I was shite at. By throwing out any pretence of caring about quality or musicality. Having achieved that, I stuck from then on just to the academic things I was good at – reading, writing, talking, bullshitting. Thus I wangled my way into university to study Biology having done neither Biology or Chemistry.

Because I love science. The beauty of neuroscience today is we can watch the brain function in real-time. I learnt an electrochemical method to look at how dopamine behaves in the brain, addictively watching what happens to it as you apply addictive drugs. Soon I will learn live cell imaging techniques, to take videos of neural activity and processes happening at a microscopic level. I think part of the appeal of these techniques to me is that they reward the impatient – you can do them alone, sometimes even get immediate feedback, can look and see what happens if you just mess about with the system. It’s the ultimate kind of kid science, and powerful for that.

No wonder then I loved the idea of patch-clamping. Watching what happens to electrical signals inside a brain cell as you carry out experiments is like getting a God’s eye view into the soul. But to persuade a neuron to talk to you takes patience, perseverance and (as my piping tutor used to say every week) practice! practice! practice!

You mustn’t cut corners. You mustn’t skip steps. You must be aware that things can go wrong at any time.

In the end, I stopped being so impatient, I stopped perseverating – a technical term from psychology which means repeating something futile. I did some reading. I patiently watched and noted down every single thing my supervisor did. And tried to copy him.

Then one day, mimicking exactly what I had seen, it worked. I had flattened the learning curve. I was listening to a neuron. I watched as it radically changed its electrical signals in unexpected ways in response to the drugs I was applying.

I got some cool data. Then some more. Then something went wrong. My new data was crap, confounded. I needed to resolve a problem. So I read some papers from back in the day, written by a man appropriately named MacDonald, patiently tried out every single solution to the problem, and in the end one solution worked, partially, and not always.

But that’s science. And life. The reason I hate airport bookshops is that people with every spoon, every privilege in the world, write books and say if you just persevere things will work out. This is the rightwing pull yourself up by your bootstraps argument writ large. In the world of science this just doesn’t apply: plenty of people persevere, but it’s a fucked-up labour market, a hypercompetitive culture, which punishes women and people of colour most of all.

Hence I’m not here to make some universal point. I’m a white, male PhD student reflecting on the role of perseverance in my own life, and nothing more. I’m reflecting on myself, and why I will start writing again, why a bit more perseverance with this blog is worth it. I gave up my old blog up because I was impatient, impatient to get readers, followers, to get noticed. But I had readers, people who appreciated my rambling posts, and one article at least which was mildly influential. So I will persverre, be patient, practice and produce good content.

As for science, the point of the first year in a PhD program is to see what you like, what you are cut out for. I still get emotionally entangled in my work, but if I’ve learnt anything in London, that most hectic of cities where everyrone is rushing from one place to the next, it is to be patient and persevere. You might not be rewarded always, but in science, it’s better to do something properly than do it just to prove you can do it. Good data comes from hard work, even when worldly success won’t necessarily.

An addendum to finish – I went to the GP and got some new inhalers. My London-clogged lungs are a lot better now. Maybe I’ll pick up my practice chanter again and have a go on the pipes.

Better still, I’ll blog about it…

(…but probably not – I have too many new neuroscience techniques to learn!)

One thought on ““Practice! Practice! Practice!”: What Piping And Patch-Clamping Taught Me About Perseverance

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed your blog. It is a perfect message for the beginning of a new year. Lots to think about there! And good to hear about what you’re about there in London!
    Bliadhna Ùire mhath a ghraidh!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *