Conflict: The Driver of (Scientific) Success

“What is the sensitivity of an MRI scan to detect liver cancer?”

I briefly blanked. As I was sifting through all the MRI facts I’d read about a couple of days ago, I could tell that our science fair judge at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) — with his feet impatiently tapping on the ground — was anxious to move on to the next question. In contrast to his I’m-a-friendly-guy tie with at least thirty Snoopy dogs on it, he looked slightly annoyed.

His tie looked something like this (image credit: http://www.atomicmall.com/view.php?id=Snoopy-Dog-Many-Play-Golf-Cartoon-Fancy-Novelty-NECK-TIE_2225013)

This was the 11th grade me at ISEF, an amazing week-long adventure of learning and scientific goodness. After seeing some of my closest friends make it to this international stage, it was always one of my “dreams” to do the same. But every year up to 10th grade, I just couldn’t crack the code — I would always fall short of some of the other outstanding projects at our tri-state fair. I was hungry to find the secret to this mythical success, and every time I failed, it seemed like my hunger just grew.

Then came the summer before 11th grade, where instead of taking on an individual project, I led a team project, with my friend Jonathan working with me. Combining our projects together, I felt confident that this year was the best chance we had to finally reach the international level. However, because we were such good friends and so comfortable around each other, our team effort invited unexpected conflict and challenges.

At the Pittsburgh Drury Plaza Hotel days before the ISEF competition, Jonathan and I found ourselves arguing over the real-world application of our project while preparing our poster presentation. Sitting on the hotel bed after telling Jonathan to dig up any additional notes he collected about our project’s conclusion, I was anxiously calling our mentor back home in Philadelphia and asking last-minute questions about the smallest of details. Can you clarify bridge amplification in Next-Generation Sequencing again? Why is MRI scan the “gold standard” for liver cancer diagnosis?

The Pittsburgh Drury Plaza Hotel (image credit: https://www.druryhotels.com/locations/pittsburgh-pa/drury-plaza-hotel-pittsburgh-downtown)

It had reached midnight by the time I finished, my notebook littered with notes. Although I am used to staying up to midnight and even times later than that, today was different. I felt exhausted, like a person who had just finished the Tour de France. Whether it be from the long discussion with my mentor, the hours staring at my MacBook Air, or the long day of activities the ISEF staff prepared for us, I was dead inside. But, I knew that before we went to bed, Jonathan and I had to discuss our findings.

Gathering all of my research, I walked over to Jonathan who was busily typing away on his computer. For probably the sixth time this week, we got into a brief argument because, frustratingly, the notes I collected about MRI contradicted his. We both could back up our statements with websites and publications, so it seemed that no one was in the wrong.

Feeling alive and rejuvenated from the altercation, I decided that we needed to read even more literature despite him protesting grudgingly. We ended up spending hours doing more research instead of resting or putting together our presentation. It was not fun waking up that morning with only 3 hours of sleep, and I swear our alarm clock went off for at least an hour before either one of us made any attempt at waking up.

Me and Jonathan arguing with each other (image credit: https://www.joshuanhook.com/2-key-questions-to-ask-during-conflict/)

As team leader, I had to assert my opinions and decide whether or not to take my teammate’s suggestions and input, so there were a few conflicts like these when I made decisions that he disagreed with. However, such moments of healthy debate allowed us to challenge each other to another level and pushed us to dig deeper into our research. This propelled both of us to think beyond our prepared remarks and better anticipate the judges’ questions, leading us to the international stage for the first time in three years. Conflict comes with having an opinion and being open with others, and it is inevitable — even necessary — to make a team stronger. Both inside and outside of research, opposition nurtures progress and helps advance conversation.

As I continued to rattle off facts about MRI scans, hoping something would stick, Jonathan came in with an answer: “Also, it really depends on the size of the tumor. For example, MRI is 100 percent sensitive for lesions larger than two centimeters.”

After the judging round was over, I breathed a heavy sigh of relief and hugged Jonathan. He pushed me off, and we just laughed. In the end, our conflicts and willingness to challenge each other truly did make us as a better, more balanced team.

Adam Zhang

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Inspiring scientific literacy, self-efficacy, and student interest in STEM. Run by students from the March for Science: Students for Science

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