Jen Heemstra explores the chemistry of nature and the nature of failure

In many instances, scientific insights come not just from flipping through our rolodex of knowledge from past successes, but also from the equally common—though sometimes less documented— failures. We become much more effective and efficient researchers if we use our own experiences, good and bad, to guide us to the answers.

“We get really excited thinking about how we can take advantage of these properties to invent new technologies that address unmet needs in medicine or the environment.”

Dr. Jen Heemstra

The concept of using past experiences and mistakes therein to move in the direction of success is mirrored in nature, where biology samples genetic variation to select for organisms that are the most well-equipped for survival. This theme in science, of addressing the known in the context of the unknown, is evident in the lab of Dr. Jen Heemstra, one of the newest professors to the Department of Chemistry. “Biomolecules have these fascinating properties that have been generated by evolution over billions of years, making them especially privileged for recognition and self-assembly,” says Dr. Heemstra. “We get really excited thinking about how we can take advantage of these properties to invent new technologies that address unmet needs in medicine or the environment.”

This passion for discovery led Dr. Heemstra to focus her research efforts on supramolecular chemistry, specifically on understanding the forces that drive interactions between nucleic acids, proteins, and small molecules. Her lab then seeks to apply this understanding towards the development of new technologies. In utilizing biomolecular recognition and self-assembly to generate functional architectures for biosensing and bioimaging, her lab uses nature to inspire innovation. As part of this process, Dr. Heemstra refuses to let the unknown or unfamiliar discourage curiosity and progress. With this mentality, her lab is uninhibited by the potential for failure and instead views failure as an essential part of development and discovery. With one glance at her lab website, it is immediately clear how much Dr. Heemstra appreciates failure, even listing “Embracing Failure” as one of the core values of her group.

Having recently received several awards including the Cottrell Scholar Award, the NSF CAREER Award, and the W.W Epstein Outstanding Educator Award, it is hard to imagine that Dr. Heemstra is all that familiar with the concept of failure. However, when asked about how failure has shaped her professional path, Dr. Heemstra said that her fear of failure nearly held her back from pursuing a career in academia. “I second-guessed myself so much about going into this job. When you fail in academia, you fail in this horribly public way, and that was just terrifying to me,” Dr. Heemstra said. When she realized that this fear was holding her back, she decided that she would not let what other people might think of her rob her of the opportunity to follow her passion and pursue this job that she knew she would love.

Cover of “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” written by Dr. Carol Dweck.

She largely credits her ability to face and overcome failure to the concepts outlined in Dr. Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. The author differentiates between two extremes of how people view their abilities. People with a fixed mindset believe that their abilities are defined and unmalleable, while people with a growth mindset believe that their abilities can develop and evolve through hard work. With the growth mindset, individuals are not deterred by a fear of failure and instead view challenges and failures as opportunities to learn and improve. As a result, these individuals are more likely to take risks and find success.

Dr. Heemstra applies this mindset to her own life. On her blog, she writes, “Over the past couple of years, I’ve been inspired to re-think failure, and have bought into the idea that we actually need to teach students (and ourselves) how to embrace short-term failure as a key step on the path to success.” She writes about the relationship between mediocrity and failure, and asks the reader to consider whether “a life of never really trying” is better than “aiming for greatness and occasionally missing”. She goes on to say, “My goal for myself is to de-stigmatize failure, instead viewing it as an inevitable encounter on the road to success, and far preferable to mediocrity”.

Having experienced the benefits of adopting the growth mindset in her own life, Dr. Heemstra gave a seminar to the incoming chemistry graduate class entitled “The Power of Embracing Failure.” “Our natural psychology pulls us back into that fixed mindset of self-doubt,” says Dr. Heemstra. The hope is that, by adopting a growth mindset, students will:

  1. Identify failure as a natural and necessary part of the learning process
  2. Embrace and overcome failure by adjusting the way they view their abilities
  3. Be better prepared to manage failure in the future.

The message of how to embrace failure was well-received by chemistry’s incoming class. First-year chemistry graduate student Evelyn Kimbrough, says, “Professor Jennifer Heemstra’s talk, ‘The Power of Embracing Failure,’ has inspired me, and many other students, to lose the shame and embarrassment associated with failing. Now as I’m starting my graduate school experience I feel more prepared to handle the pitfalls I will encounter and I’m excited to try things I’ve never done before.”

“You have to be willing to fail to make progress and to do the big, impactful things.”

Dr. Jen Heemstra

“In research, we go into each day knowing that most of our experiments will fail or fall short of the ideal outcome,” says Dr. Heemstra, “You have to be willing to fail to make progress and to do the big, impactful things.” By viewing failure as a stepping stone on the path to success instead of a course-altering roadblock, we allow ourselves to grow and develop as scientists. When we embrace our failures, we can be free from inhibition by fear or hesitation and can better take on challenges that we might have otherwise deemed too difficult.

Interested in learning more about the growth mindset and embracing failure? Check out Dr. Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, and Astro Teller’s TED talk, The Unexpected Benefits of Celebrating Failure.