Don’t lose sight of what a great job cancer researchers have

Shortlisted for The Cancer Researcher-EACR Science Communication Prize

Whether we like to admit it or not we are each making a tiny step towards ultimately eradicating this varied and devastating disease.

by Kabir Khan

When I am asked what I do for a living at a party or a gathering, I will often say “I am a scientist” or “I am a cancer researcher”. This is often met with “Wow that is so cool, what a noble cause” or something similar. While I love telling people about my research I can often become a little embarrassed at reactions from people. I am sure others also feel this way, as we scientists are often a modest and non-self-confident bunch.

This is mainly because you often don’t feel like you really are making a difference. Sometimes I think it is easy to lose sight of what a great job we really have. While the day to day work in the lab may not feel like it is really “changing the world”, as non-scientists will often say, I think whether we like to admit it or not we are each making a small change and a tiny step towards ultimately eradicating this varied and devastating disease.

The endless joy of pipetting. Credit: Kabir A. Khan

Monotonous and repetitive work

Throughout my career from master’s projects, to PhD and now my first post-doc, I can safely say that one of the day to day challenges in the lab is monotonous and repetitive work. Endless pipetting and labelling of tubes, waiting for reactions to incubate and powders to dissolve. I still remember the chill in my bones of standing in the cold-room during a master’s project in which I was refolding a protein expressed in E.coli. Sounds fancy, but for those who know, this basically involved manually mixing two large volume solutions one drop at a time, too fast and the protein could crash out of solution, leading to more aggregation and a really terrible prep. We probably could have somehow automated this task, but I think these kinds of experiments are almost a rite of passage. I have grown used to the sometimes repetitive work and now even enjoy switching off, I will often use this time to listen to music, an audiobook or a podcast.

Another major part of a life of research is failure

Even the best scientists in the world will have a slew of failed experiments that will be enough to bring anyone down. Such failed experiments are easier to take when you know what may have gone wrong and what you can try next, but often it’s not that easy. Things that should work so well on paper often have a tendency to not work for reasons that are often too complicated to even begin teasing out. My advice would be to look at alternatives, always ask for advice and know when to give it up. Many months can be wasted on trying to get an experiment to work when maybe it would have been better and more economical to take an entirely different approach, even if that means painfully starting again from scratch.

Right there, in that moment, you are likely the only person in the world who knows that small secret of nature

The really fun part…

But all the monotony, repetitive work and failure is ultimately rewarded when you finally get that result that gets your heart racing. That is the part that makes it all worthwhile, whether you are on your own in the dark room on a Friday night staring at that western blot or finally plotting graphs of data that took weeks to accumulate. Right there, in that moment, you are likely the only person in the world who knows that particular finding, knows that small secret of nature, you are likely the only person that has seen that protein interaction or that effect of a certain drug. Then comes the really fun part… sharing that finding with your colleagues and eventually the wider scientific world.

Kabir KhanAbout the author

Kabir Khan is a postdoctoral researcher supported by a Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) Banting fellowship in Professor Robert Kerbel’s lab in Toronto, Canada. He is investigating new therapies for solid tumours with a focus on metastatic disease. This involves a range of immunotherapeutic approaches as well as anti-vascular agents and metronomic chemotherapy. He has been an EACR member since 2013.

About this article

This is one of our shortlisted entries for The Cancer Researcher-EACR Science Communication Prize. Click to read the winner and the rest of our amazing shortlist.