How Do We Deal with Setbacks as Scientists?

<a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/patriciakamau/"><strong>Patricia Kamau, PhD</strong></a>
Patricia Kamau, PhD

Scientific Writer, Charleston, SC, USA

Janet Emerson Bashen, American inventor, entrepreneur, and first African-American woman to hold a software patent, once said that, “my success and failures make me who I am.” We can all relate to this quote as scientists, because success and failure are indeed part and parcel of scientific progress. In this article, I discuss the scientific accomplishments of Sir Alexander Fleming and Alice Ball, two scientists whose lives should inspire us to allow life’s setbacks to propel us forward rather than paralyze us.

Sir Alexander Fleming (1881 – 1955) was a Scottish physician and researcher specializing in bacteriology. During World War I, Sir Fleming served as a captain in the Army Medical Corps. He observed that several of his fellow soldiers who were wounded died, not because of their battle wounds, but because of subsequent bacterial infections that developed in the wounds. As a result, he began to investigate ways of treating these infections that were more effective than any of the treatment options available at that time.

In 1928, Sir Fleming was conducting experiments using Staphylococcal bacteria, a common bacterial species that was understood to “cause sore throats, boils and abscesses.” One of his Petri dishes was accidentally left open near a window and subsequently grew some mould. He observed that the immediate area around the mould was free of bacteria, and inferred that the mould was producing a substance that was lethal to the bacteria. He was able to isolate this substance, and named it penicillin.

When he initially published his findings in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology in 1929, the scientific community did not see his results as anything to be excited about. Furthermore, his team failed to isolate penicillin in significant enough quantities due to it being very unstable. However, many years later in 1940, two scientists named Howard Florey and Ernst Chain took an interest in Sir Fleming’s work and partnered with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer to mass-produce penicillin.In 1945, Fleming, Florey and Chain were co-recipients of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

Sir Alexander Fleming, Ernst Boris Chain and Sir Howard Walter Florey (Image taken from: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/1945/summary/)

Alice Augusta Ball (1892 – 1916) became the first woman and African-American to graduate from the College of Hawaii (modern day University of Hawaii) with a Master of Science degree in Chemistry in 1915. She then became the College’s first woman chemistry instructor at just 23 years old.

Alice Ball was also a researcher, and her work focused on developing a treatment for leprosy. She successfully modified the structure of oil obtained from the chaulmoogra tree in order to make it water-soluble and injectable. Up until that point, this oil had only been applied topically as a leprosy treatment in Chinese and Indian medicine. Ball’s efforts would eventually lead to a highly successful treatment protocol for leprosy known as the “Ball Method,” which cured thousands of leprosy patients over a span of thirty years. Sadly, Ball did not get to see the impact of her work because she died in 1916 after an illness due to chlorine exposure during a lab session.

To make matters worse, Dr. Arthur Dean, president of the College of Hawaii, continued Ball’s research and took full credit for her work, initially calling it the “Dean Method.” In 1922, Dr. Harry T. Hollman wrote a paper where he gave Ball the full credit she deserved. Hollman was a surgeon at a nearby hospital who had given Ball the idea to explore chaulmoogra oil in her research.

In 2000, the University of Hawaii-Manoa honored Ball’s work with a bronze plaque that was placed in front of the only chaulmoogra tree on campus. That same day, the former Lieutenant Governor of Hawaii, Mazie Hirono, declared February 29, Alice Ball Day, which is celebrated every four years.   In 2007, the university also posthumously recognized her with the Regent’s Medal of Distinction. In 2017, the Alice Ball Endowed Scholarship was established at the university in her honor by Paul Wermager, a faculty member and scholar who researched, published and lectured about Alice Ball for fifteen years. This fund supports underrepresented minority students at the university pursuing degrees in chemistry, biology or microbiology.

Alice Ball (Image taken from: https://scientificwomen.net/women/ball-alice-121)

Both Fleming and Ball, despite experiencing challenges, made significant contributions to the advancement of science. However, while Fleming had the opportunity to witness the monumental impact of his work, Ball died prematurely before her life’s work came to its positive fruition. As I reflect on the accomplishments of both scientists, I feel inspired to respond to challenges with a can-do attitude, knowing that everything I experience as a scientist, good or bad, is not in vain. How do you deal with setbacks in your life?

References:

  1. Alice Ball. Retrieved from https://www.biography.com/scientist/alice-ball
  2. Alice Augusta Ball Endowed Scholarship. Retrieved from http://scholarships.uhfoundation.org/scholarships/scholarship_detail.aspx?acct=12748502
  3. Arnaud, C.H.Penicillin Purpose: Typical Antibacterial. Retrieved from https://cen.acs.org/articles/83/i25/Penicillin.html
  4. Bellis, M. (2020, December 24). Biography of Janet Emerson Bashen, American Inventor. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/janet-emerson-bashen-1991288
  5. Hudson, T. (2014, May 29). Schoolzone: War Infections and the Advent of Antibiotics. Retrieved from https://microbiologysociety.org/publication/past-issues/world-war-i/article/schoolzone-war-infections-and-the-advent-of-antibiotics.html
  6. Tan, S. Y., & Tatsumura, Y. (2015). Alexander Fleming (1881-1955): Discoverer of penicillin. Singapore medical journal, 56(7), 366–367. https://doi.org/10.11622/smedj.2015105

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