Have you ever seen the movie “They shoot horses, don’t they”?  Based on McCoy’s novel of the same name, this piece of cinematographic art exposes the story of a dance marathon during the economic crisis that marked the period of Great Depression.

The story talks about strength and energy to find out a way to success.  Back to the reality, the life of us scientists in our laboratories is an endless dance marathon orchestrated by successes and failures.  Every day, we dance unceasingly around our benches, and swinging with our pipettes, we follow the rhythm of cell counters, shakers, centrifuges and fingers tapping computer keys.  Focused on our test tubes, our tireless mind is driven by our imagination and creativity, but at the same time, anaesthetised by all the adrenalin produced when they come up with a discovery.

But what happens if one has to face defeat, in case experiments fail to work?  Motivation disappears and only remains in the tube the previously dancing adrenalin.  In both cases, defeat and success, dilemma persists arising interrogations:  Am I able and ready to continue?  Will I do even better?

Very often, scientific research can be unrewarding, and can unfortunately cause us hurtful feelings, frustration and demotivation, especially because considerable years, efforts and energy have been put into it.  Nevertheless, far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, failures are actually excellent lessons that can lead to future success and are fundamental for the development of cognitive functions, as a sign of natural selection.  Interestingly, important scientific failures have led to historical discoveries, including penicillin, and the tumor necrosis factor or TNF as a proinflammatory cytokineWe all know the story of the first, but what about the second?  In mid 70-ies, after developing several compounds that showed promise as anti-trypanosomal drugs in mice and rats, Anthony Cerami and his collaborators tested them on infected cattle in Kenya.  Unfortunately, the administration of their compounds to the sick cows systematically led to weight loss and death of the animals for unknown reasonFar from being discouraged and after considerable efforts to understand this phenomenon, Beutler and Cerami discovered a hormone that induces cachexia that they named cachectin.  Surprisingly, while working on its biological activity, they found out that this molecule was actually the previously identified tumor necrosis factor.  At final, a hidden side of TNF as an important mediator of inflammation was discovered, as well as the fact that the molecule was produced whenever an invasion occurs in the organism or tissue damage.  In addition to this elegant discovery, the team identified other pro-inflammatory cytokines as well as erythropoietin as the inhibitor of TNF.

In accordance, this story shows us that discouragements and obstacles can be transformed into a source of motivation and success if one persists and importantly re-strategizes by using a different approach and changing the conditions of the experiment.  Moreover, communication within the scientific team is crucial, as others’ experience can help us consider different viewpoints and develop new ideas.  In addition, it is very important to go back to basic science, and be up to date in scientific literature.  Finally, a positive spirit and a healthy mind usually aid us in finding a way to good results.

Yes, the life of a scientist is not an easy one.  Scientific research is an everyday fight, requiring patience, stubbornness and maturity.  In addition to creativity and brightness, one of the most important qualities of a successful scientist is the ability to deal smartly with defeats, but also, when it happens, with success.  Although scientific fatigue eventually ends today’s dance, tomorrow is full of new steps as we start another tango.  And this is what motivates us to go forward, with pride and hope on the way to victory.


The article was published in the PGA post, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, February Issue (2013).



Beutler B, Greenwald D, Hulmes JD, Chang M, Pan YC, Mathison J, Ulevitch R and Cerami A (1985).  Identity of tumour necrosis factor and the macrophage-secreted factor cachectin.  Nature 14; 316(6028):552-4.