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Embracing failure

By Katherine Aitchison, on 27 July 2012

Once a month, something beautiful happens in a dark room behind the Wilmington Arms pub in Islington. Now don’t let your imagination run away with you – I’m talking about Bright Club, the alternative comedy night from UCL.

On this night, researchers, academics and otherwise serious folk gather in the tiny room and, for two hours, tell silly stories and generally make fun of their chosen careers.

The event is understandably popular; tickets had sold out and I was glad that I got there early enough to grab a seat on a rickety wooden bench. By the time the metaphorical curtain went up, there were people leaning on all the walls and my bench was surrounded by those who had been further back in the queue and were forced to stand through the acts.

Each month’s gathering has a theme and the chosen topic for July was “Failure” in order to tie in with UCL’s series of Olympic-themed events, Exercise your brain. The idea being to take the edge off all the talk of winning and medals inspired by the Games by celebrating the fact that not everything always goes according to plan.

As any academic will be able to tell you, failure is a fact of research and it’s something you have to learn to embrace very quickly when entering the world of research.

During my PhD (in molecular biology,  I’ve failed to do any number of things: sometimes because I make mistakes, sometimes just because science can be a very fickle friend and doesn’t always do what you expect it to.

Either way, I think I’ve learned to embrace failure and I have my own share of funny stories about experiments that didn’t work.

But failure doesn’t have to be personal. Bright Club prides itself on attracting people from all walks of academic life and this offering was no different.

We had a translator telling us about the ways that censorship has failed to protect the innocent public from the pornographic tendencies of medieval writers; a psychologist who talked about gullibility in small children and how it can both succeed and fail to protect us from danger; and a molecular biologist who shared her own stories of failing in the lab.

All of this was aptly hosted by professional comedian Nick Doody, who sometimes failed to stick to the required topic but was nonetheless very funny. He was accompanied by the musical stylings of Kirsty Newton who shared some of her own compositions as well as some covers of songs about failure.

All in all, it was a very pleasant way to spend a Tuesday evening and very good value at only £5 a ticket – not to mention the free sweets on entry and exit. Although in a cruel twist of fate, the chocolate éclair I took for the trip home failed to contain any chocolate.

How’s that for irony?

Katherine Aitchison is a Second year PhD student at the UCL Institute of Child Health.

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