Robert Clarke, PhD, DSc: Embracing failure and learning to fish.

Professor Department of Oncology
Co-Director Breast Cancer Program

“You have to embrace risk and failure if you do research. If it was already known, then why would you be doing it?”

At Georgetown University since 1989

If this, then that.

We often think we know the answer and we structure our research in a hypothesis-driven manner that says, “If this, then that.” However, it often ends up that the “if this”-part is true, but the “then that”-part is not. But that is okay, because we often learn more from getting it wrong. It is not a comfortable way to learn, but it is what you are doing. We have to embrace failure for what it is, and failure does not mean that life has just collapsed and your career is over. The way to think about it is, “So I got that wrong, what is the right answer then?” At least we know that one possibility is eliminated and it is not true. We may be stuck with a myriad of other things but at least we know what it is NOT — and that can be tremendously valuable too.

A testament to evolution.

All my research has been in breast cancer. We are trying to understand how some breast cancers become resistant to, or never respond to drugs that target the estrogen receptor. About 70% of breast cancers present the estrogen receptor, so it is the largest sub-group of breast cancers. We know the initial response rate to treatment for women with estrogen receptor positive breast cancer is pretty good with over 90% survival over 5 years. The risk of recurrence and dying from breast cancer has reached its maximum on an annual basis, so women continue to have a high risk of recurrence for the rest of their lives. Even though there is no evidence of disease and they seem to have a wonderful response to treatment, a lot of women experience their cancer coming back (sometimes 10-20 years later). When it does come back, it is usually all over the body and then it is incredibly difficult to cure. If the drugs worked in the first place, there would not be any cancer present in the breast to come back, so we do not really understand the process well. In my research, we have taken a very different approach which has led us to view it more as a system, so rather than looking for a mutation or a pathway, we look for how the cell uses all the resources that are available to it. This allows the cells to get around the stress of treatment and the cells seem to be really clever and adaptable. It is an amazing testament to evolution and its ability to allow complex organisms to survive incredible stresses and not die.

“There’s the saying, ‘You never step in the same river twice.’ You also never walk into the same classroom twice. That’s what you really want. You want to be questioned and challenged. You want to know that people are thinking and processing the information in a way that leads them to think about something in a new way.”

Teaching students to fish.

The hardest part of mentorship is allowing people to make mistakes and not holding them responsible when they do. In research, we want to move as quickly as we can because it is a competitive environment. Sometimes, students forget a control or they think of an experiment they want to do, and we may not think it is quite right, but we let them try it anyway. Students have to be given the opportunity to fail in order to learn, and if we keep telling them what to do, then they don’t learn to think for themselves. We have given them a fish as opposed to teaching them how to fish. And of course, the best part of mentorship is watching them be successful and find their own way.

Through thick and thin.

It is important to have a good peer group because your peers are often the people who can help you get through the hard times and celebrate the good times. It is hard to do it on your own. Students coming to Georgetown may be new to the campus or even new to the country, so finding a group of people who are going through the same things and can help be a support system. They can provide a buffer from the day-to-day stresses and challenges to keep you grounded.