I started a project about 2 years into my post-doc in the early months of 2010. It involved an idea that was a bit out there and I wasn’t sure that it was going to work. After discussing it with my post-doc supervisor I went for it. It was a molecular biology project and I successfully created some expression constructs and some yeast transformants. About 5 months into the project I received my faculty job offer and the strains sat in the freezer until the summer of 2011. Such is the advantage of molecular biology projects; you can put them into a deep freeze and reawaken them later. From 2011-2013 two wonderful fourth year thesis students and a talented graduate student generated the bulk of the data and protocols for the project and wrote up their results as theses. The manuscript based on these results was rejected by three different journals over the next 1.5 years. The reviews that I received certainly improved the quality of the final article, but it is hard to feel optimistic in the face of continued rejection. It is also really hard to not feel like you might be in the wrong line of work. Based on the suggestion of several reviewers, I went into the lab and collected new data using a different technique. I submitted the manuscript to a more specialized journal and was asked to do major revisions to the paper this summer. I am pleased to say that the article was accepted for publication last week.
This is the most technically challenging project that I have done as a scientist and the most professionally and personally draining publication process that I have faced to date. There were several times during the past 6 years when I almost gave up on the project and tried to evaluate if the sunk cost of time and effort already invested should be written off. It is great in this case that perseverance paid off in a publication for my lab group. I wish that there was a formula that we could use as scientists that would help us to determine when to give up on zombie projects and move on with other things. This one in particular is a great example of the project that refused to die, mostly because I was stubborn and refused to give up on it. I’m taking this one as a win.
How do you decide if and when to let a project die? Is it a conscious choice, or did the project go silently into the night never to be heard from or seen again? Do you have skeleton projects hiding in your lab’s closet?