As I finished my latest round of belts today, I was pleased because I only messed up one of them. One of the nice things about custom hand made things is that they are all different. But sometimes those “differences” cross the boundary from “adds character” to “real screwup”. I always strive to minimize mistakes, but they have a way of creeping in at new and unexpected times.
When I was a saddle maker apprentice and I’d make a mistake, Mr. Ginder would chuckle and tell me that I wasn’t “holding my mouth right!” I was never quite sure what he was trying to tell me, but when I tried it the next time it was almost always right. At the time I thought that he was just joking but now I realize that I was too tense and trying too hard. 30 years later, I think about “holding my mouth right” several times each week.
Slim Green was a saddle maker in Santa Fe, and because I worked in another shop, Slim was the “competition”. He was very good, especially at fancy western carving. One day when I was visiting him, Slim told me that he puts in a small mistake into everything that he makes. This was in respect to Navajo artists, who were rumored to do the same with sand paintings. I never needed to try to add mistakes to my leather work. They happen naturally. In fact, I try to keep mistakes out of my work, but sometimes I just don’t hold my mouth right and they happen.
I make mistakes in all aspects of my life, including science. I try to learn from my mistakes, and one mistake from my first months of graduate school in 1989 has continued to inform me to this day. I had been in John Markley’s lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for a very short time, and I really loved the lab. There was no guarantee that I could stay in the lab, and I considered the initial time there a trial period. John had become famous by figuring out how to “label” proteins with atoms that could be measured by a technique called NMR. The mainstay of the lab’s labeling was a big tank in which we would grow algae and feed it the correct isotopic atoms and then isolate the proteins from the algae. This was a very efficient procedure that had been well developed by several different graduate students before me.
John assigned me the task of labeling proteins with the algae tank, and I was paired with an advanced graduate student, Beyong, who was going to be finishing within the next 6 months. Beyong and I spent a few good weeks starting the algae tank with normal atoms, and everything was fine. Once it was established, we switched to the fancy labels, which for the experts were C-13 labeled CO2 gas and N-15 labeled NH4Cl. Beyong and I were both in a rush the day we switched the algae tank to the fancy labels, so we just hooked them up and left. I had class and Beyong needed to work on his dissertation. We agreed to meet in a few hours to see how things were going…
When we got back, all of the fancy C-13 CO2 gas was gone. This was supposed to last for weeks or months, and we lost it all in less than a few hours. It didn’t make it into the algae, but rather it filled the building and then leaked out into the air outside through the holes that we subsequently discovered in the tubes and also through the valve that didn’t work right. Beyong and I were shocked and scared. Initially we decided that we would keep this our secret, but then Beyong did some investigating and discovered that the cost of the gas was about $10,000! That was more than I got paid as a graduate student for the entire year.
I couldn’t sleep and was completely tormented. There were several other tanks of gas, and it was likely that John would never discover the problem, because the lab was big and he was very busy. I thought that if I told him I would certainly be kicked out of the lab that I’d grown to love so much. A day or two later I talked to my Dad and told him the story and how badly I was feeling. Dad told me that I needed to tell John the truth and that things would work out.
The next morning, I walked into John’s office and spilled my guts. I was prepared to go back to saddle making, because I was certain that I would no longer be a graduate student. John listened quietly and was clearly aware that I was in some distress. He very calmly apologized to me for putting me into this situation, explaining that he knew that one day soon the algae tank would break. He had planned for some time to try to improve the process, and his first words were that he was sorry that I was the one to be running it when it messed up. I was still a graduate student and still in his lab!
John is a wonderful man, whom I still consider a great friend. Not everyone would have had the reaction that John had. Now that I run a lab of graduate students who also make mistakes, I always try to remember John’s reaction when one of my students comes into my office looking a bit scared or embarrassed. From what I’ve heard from my students over 18 years, none of them have beat me, and my algae mistake still is the best mistake to this day.