The importance of side projects


I’m in my fourth year as a post-doc (well technically I’mnot a post-doc anymore, but it does feel that way) and yesterday I submitted my first first-author paper as a post-doc. Is that a little late? Perhaps, but in my defense: I had to learn slice electrophysiology first, and then I got sucked into a bunch of collaborative projects (one can argue about how smart that is, but it did leave me with 2 published (2nd author) papers and at least one (shared 1stauthor) paper in the making). 
What I want to tell you about is how this paper came into the world. It started when the collaborator I consulted about my main project asked me to do a control experiment. That control experiment showed something interesting to me, and even though the collaborator was not super interested, I pursued this and got a bunch of rather interesting data. Then I got an invitation to submit a paper to an okay, but not very high-impact journal. I figured that this could be a fast and relatively easy way to get a first author paper out, where I could show the world the things that I can do. So I did some slice electrophysiology to make my side project a bit more interesting and when I sent this to the collaborator he was pretty enthusiastic about it. Without really realizing it (because, shame on me, I wasn’t aware enough of the literature) I had discovered something new and interesting! So something tiny, that no one was really enthusiastic about at first, turned into something cool!
And my main project? That turned out to be way too ambitious and technically challenging (read: impossible). And thanks to my mentor’s “hands-off” mentoring style and my own stubbornness, I realized this only this year… It was a good lesson in project design, that I hope I will be able to use in the future.
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Filed under experiments, life in the lab, mentoring, publishing papers

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