Blog Global Health Center

A researcher in retrograde

Written by Jessica S. Li, MD candidate, Washington State University Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine in Spokane, Washington; and 2022 Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program participant


“Fail forward” is a motivational quote I often use in my career. I have always perceived it as getting up when you fall, or persevering through difficult times. For example, as an undergraduate, I joined my first research lab but promptly had to leave the lab after just two months because I did not find success there. In order to “fail forward”, and even though I felt I was not capable of doing this, I brushed myself off and joined another research lab, . I slowly discovered how to become an immunologist and received several scholarships for my work as an undergraduate researcher. I went on to become a full-time research scientist, and spearheaded projects and training programs. I truly felt that I had “discovered my wings” in research.

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Li presenting undergraduate research in 2019

However, I still have yet to embark on research in public health, where my passions lie. Now, as a participant in the summer program’s Public & Global Health Track, I find myself researching within my passions but with the familiar doubt of my abilities. Have I regressed? Was I ever really capable of research? I began this program with immense hesitation and almost debilitating doubt. I pestered my colleagues who had backgrounds in public health and epidemiologic research and clung to their guidance like a child learning to walk. I truly believed any independent step I took would be a mistake. Then I spoke to my mentor, Hilary Reno, MD, PhD, who has given me advice that has helped me to further understand what it means to “fail forward”. She has inspired me to let my mind wander, and to know that in those times of boredom and lack of direction are the times when creativity and new ideas materialize. In understanding that advice, I have felt the shackles of doubt fall and I have begun to spit out ideas and questions to Dr. Reno and her team. They have supported my thoughts, which has only cemented my curiosity. While I do not have the same level of knowledge in this type of research and I lack a lot of confidence, I no longer feel bound by that learning curve. I feel as if I have been released to a new frontier to move forward in. To “fail forward” is to keep expanding in all directions and not be felled by obstacles of one’s own mind.