The Figure One Problem

The Figure One Problem 150 150 IEEE Pulse
Author(s): Matthew Canver

Like many undergraduate students, my plans and ideas for my career trajectory evolved over time. As I have written about before, I went back and forth during college about whether to pursue an M.D.-only or M.D./Ph.D. degree. No matter where I fell on that spectrum during that time, I talked to a variety of graduate students in the lab I worked in about their experiences as Ph.D. students. One of the major lessons that I learned from this was to hedge my bets to graduate in a reasonable amount of time by working on multiple projects at once, particularly during the first two years of graduate school. Since science is science, many or most of the projects will fail, but hopefully you will have at least one of your projects survive to allow for further in-depth study. It may make your life a little bit difficult early on, but arguably less difficult than being multiple years into your only project when it starts to fail.
Therefore, I have attempted to take these lessons to heart as I have embarked on my journey through graduate school. This has been a very good strategy because it has expedited my learning of lab techniques and a lot of interesting science. However, this has led to what I call the “figure one problem.” The figure one problem is when you have some preliminary data for a project that is interesting. If anything were to come out of that project, that preliminary data would be figure one. The issue is that while the preliminary data is interesting, and a promising figure one of a paper, it is still unclear if the project will ever move past figure one to figure two or any subsequent figures. It can be very exciting to have figure one-quality data for multiple projects, but discouraging when the data is too preliminary to get your hopes up about the future of the project.
I believe this is the case for many graduate students in the modern area of science when screening has become a larger part of research plans. Screens can be very laborious and/or time-consuming, but they typically offer a large amount of preliminary data. However, candidate validation generally takes much longer. Therefore, you can end up with multiple promising candidates (your figure one data), but be totally unsure if any of the projects will actually pan out. Of the multiple projects I am trying to push forward, one of them is a screen-based project, which has many potential figure ones. The other projects I have been working on, while not screens, are still at similar stages. I know that every graduate student hits a slump during their time in the lab, and this may be my slump: a lot of work on a variety of projects with no clear answer if any of the projects are going anywhere.
The fortunate (and unfortunate) part about having the figure one problem is that it is enough (hopefully) to be able to apply for a grant from the National Institute of Health. My initial findings were that applying for a grant was a lot of work. To make matters worse, the process was not easy to figure out or straightforward like applying to college or graduate school. The document that guides applicants is more than 200 pages long and there are many seemingly random forms that are required. I have to believe that this is purely a mechanism to discourage the number of grant applications to make the review easier because it would seem very simple to create a user-friendly online portal to streamline the process. I knew that in the end I would look back and deem the whole thing a good learning experience, but, at the time, the entire task was daunting.
On the positive side, it gave me a legitimate reason to slow down my activity in the lab and work from home or from a variety of coffee shops around the city of Boston. I actually do enjoy the process of writing, which might be why I am excited to hopefully get past figure one so I may someday get to the point of writing a manuscript. In the meantime, I took advantage of this time to write while being fueled by plenty of coffee.
To get through the whole process of writing the grant, I relied heavily on the M.D./Ph.D. office and my graduate program for help. Since students apply for a variety of grants and fellowships every year, they are very experienced and have many examples of successful grant applications from previous students. Therefore, they were able to help guide me step-by-step through the entire process. In the end, if the application is broken down into many small parts, it is at least manageable to attack. The submission is too recent for me to value the learning experience, but it definitely helped to focus my plans in the lab and suggested new experiments that I should do. At the very least, one of the highlights of my year was the day I submitted the grant. I was so relieved to have the application out of my hands so I could both relax and return my focus to finding the project that will help me move past figure one.