Category Archives: IMHA Webinars

IMHA Webinar Spotlight: Failure Can Fuel Your Success in Research

Professor Heemstra shared strategies for how researchers can deal with failure and how embracing failure can fuel success. It’s not uncommon for a typical researcher to accumulate thousands of failed results during a career. “Experiments fail every day. But as academics, we are never actually taught how to use this to our advantage.” Professor Heemstra saw this gap. Her lab co-founded a nationwide network called FLAMEnet—an education and psychology collaborative / research project—that investigates overcoming the fear of failure.

Being Afraid to Fail versus Being Comfortable with Failing

Challenges can be an opportunity for growth. Failure is inherent in what we do as researchers as not all experiments succeed and not every paper or grant submission gets accepted. How do we turn these “failures” into opportunities? How do we navigate self-doubt and “imposter syndrome”? And how can we become better as a result of these experiences?

Word cloud from live webinar poll

Results from the webinar audience poll answering the question: “What is an area of your life where you are afraid of failing?”

While researchers engage in research, their focus is typically on the actual research being done—and they often don’t consider other things that can impact the research process: how we think about our abilities; how we think about failure (and fear of failure); and what these things mean to us. All of these attitudes impact how we move through life and also how successful we are as researchers. Failure is painful and often unavoidable, but it can be a key step on the path to success. Leveraging failure toward success requires perseverance and resilience: the willingness to try again, to do things differently, and to do things more effectively. Moving from being totally terrified to a place of action starts by taking a step out of your comfort zone every single day.

Why should we help our students overcome their fear of failure? Why should we care? This raises questions:

  • How and when do we expect students to acquire these skills? Most courses / curriculums do not teach perseverance and resilience, yet we expect researchers to have these skills.
  • How can we help students in our courses cultivate these skills?
  • How can we be lifelong learners in cultivating these skills ourselves?

It can feel easier to push ahead despite possible failure when the things we are doing are for fun, in private or if the “stakes are low”. The stakes are much higher when we think about failing at work.

But if we avoid failing then we also:

  • Avoid setting up important experiments
  • Subtly sabotage experiments so we have an excuse when they don’t work
  • Avoid seeking out help and advice
  • Be more likely to discard the result go home instead of trying again.

There is a dichotomy: if we are open to the possibility of failure, it actually leads us to choices where we are less likely to fail. What can we do about this as researchers and educators? The answer is to change your mindset.

Fixed vs Growth Mindset

According to Carol Dweck, author of the book “Mindset”, a Fixed Mindset is static. It is defined as our belief that basic qualities such as intelligence and talent are traits that are set. That talent and intelligence alone create success. That you are born with a genetically set code for traits determining your skill level at certain things and are driven by the desire to appear intelligent. You are more likely to avoid situations where failure is possible, as a failure delivers unwelcome (and unfixable) feedback about your talent level. With a fixed mindset, you do not have a productive path forward after a failure occurs. Failure is considered to be a brick wall that cannot be overcome = a stopping point.

A Growth Mindset is active. It is the belief that we are all born with different levels of ability in a variety of areas. Intelligence and talent are just the starting point—you can develop your skills through hard work. Thus, hard work leads to success. With a growth mindset, you are driven by the desire to learn and improve. You are less afraid of new challenges, as a failure just indicates your current (not permanent) skill level. A failure is just a data point. Because you are capable of overcoming short-term failure, you can envision a path to success through hard work and improvement. Failure is considered as a simple bump in the road that can be overcome. It is just one point in the cycle towards ultimate success and can snowball into big outcomes.

What happens when your experiment fails?  Fixed mindset:

  • You might not have tried the experiment in the first place
  •  You subconsciously do something wrong in the setup – now you have an excuse when it fails
  • When you get bad results, you blame other people or external factors “they ‘ruined’ your experiment”.
  •  You view trying again as fruitless
  • But, give it a half-hearted effort to keep advisor/professor happy

Growth mindset:

  • You acknowledge that experiments might not work
  • You give your best effort to get things right
  • When you get a bad result, you view the experiment as a challenge that you want to solve
  • You view trying again as productive and fun because you believe hard work can (eventually) yield progress
  • It doesn’t matter what others think because you know you’re giving your best


Realizing the importance of these concepts, Professor Heemstra began delivering a 4-part active “Failure Training” curriculum that combines videos, lecture, social media and reflective writing into her lab courses. She then recognized this training could be improved if her lab became involved in education research. Heemstra reached out to an interdisciplinary team of psychologists, education researchers and STEM instructors across multiple institution types. Soon after, the “Failure as part of Learning, A Mindset Education Network”, or FLAMEnet was born. Over 3 years, membership to FLAMEnet has expanded to include more than 100 members. The focus has now expanded to include multiple intrapersonal factors and their impact on student success, analyzing how students learn and their retention in STEM.

The Power of Yet

Success may be defined by the moments when everything is going right, but it is largely determined by what we do in the moments when everything is going wrong. It is important to shift our thinking and embrace the adage: We are not there…yet. A more realistic plan is to adopt a growth mindset pathway. Tenured faculty likely achieved major successes by stepping out of their comfort zone a little bit every day, doing things that were a bit challenging—one step at a time. It is perfectly fine to figure things out as you go. Dealing with the failure of not achieving goals when we expect to achieve them can be the most important days of our careers. These days make us stronger and likely more empathetic. They help us gain clarity and broaden our vision of what is possible. As scientists, our days are filled with running experiments because we see there is something interesting to learn. In reality, our whole life is an experiment and it’s the most interesting experiment you will ever run.

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Webinar Spotlight: Science Misinformation

IMHA recently held a webinar targeting science misinformation with Professor Timothy Caulfield, Professor of Law at the University of Alberta and Research Director of the Health Law Institute. Drawing from examples in his new book “Relax, Dammit!”, Professor Caulfield took us through thought-provoking topics ranging from the infodemic to negativity bias and from cultural forces to personal branding. Here are 7 highlights.

The infodemic and misinformation

  • We are in the middle of an infodemic and it is impacting both our physical and mental health. This, in turn, affects our ability to filter out good from bad information.
  • Statistics Canada reported that 96% of Canadians see misinformation daily and 90% of Canadians receive their information online.
  • Surveys also found that 61% look at their phones immediately after waking up in the morning (75% while on the toilet!) and approximately 80 times throughout the day while on holiday.
  • While not entirely a social media phenomenon, the spread of misinformation is largely attributed to social media.

Observational studies and negativity bias

  • Observational studies are over-represented in the popular press. This is what the general public typically sees.
  • Only 19% of observational studies represented in popular press disclose that they are observational and note the limits of those studies.
  • People, in general, have tendency to latch on to negative news and allow that news to impact behaviors and beliefs.
  • Negativity bias is powerful. The popular press capitalizes on this because negative headlines outperform positive ones.

Cultural forces, availability bias and pop culture

  • Social trends can impact our decisions which in turn can lead to dominant cultural norms. For example, driving kids to school has become a societal norm for fear of “stranger danger”—the fear of children being abducted on their way to school.
  • A policy statement from the University of British Columbia determined that the chance of a child being abducted by a total stranger is one in 14 million.
  • Just one adverse event that happens anywhere in the world (not necessarily in Canada) can easily overwhelms all statistics, impacting decisions and actions. Powerful anecdotes can overwhelm our scientific thinking.
  • Pop culture—especially TV programming and movies—can deeply impact our perception of crime rates and fear. This in turn can also influence the decisions we make.

Myths and personal identity

  • When presented with an enduring belief, a good rule of thumb is to ask yourself “Is this true?”. For example, drinking 8 glasses of water per day for health. There’s no evidence for that.
  • The marketing industry strongly influences why some myths endure for decades and become cultural norms.
  • Tap water in most parts of Canada, is safe to drink. Yet, the wellness industry has turned water (and related peripheral products) into a multi-trillion dollar industry.
  • When something becomes part of your personal brand (‘I’m a Starbucks drinker’), it becomes much more difficult to change your mind and marketing experts know this.
  • We are seeing this happen right now with misinformation around the pandemic, masks and vaccines.


  • In a study of people who exercise, 36% overestimate the amount of exercise they do. In those who don’t exercise enough, 61% overestimate the amount they do. For parents, 88% feel their children get enough exercise when approximately 7% of children meet guideline activity levels.
  • Exercise guidelines, technology and monitoring can be complicated or confusing. Often, when you try to quantify something, people enjoy it less and they stop the activity.
  • How much to exercise? The answer is simple: just move.

Illusion of Difference

  • The Illusion of Difference—and this is something that impacts all of us all the time—is the idea that you think you can tell the difference between things when you can’t.
  • In a study from Edinburgh, Scotland, nearly 600 people were asked if they could tell the difference between cheap and expensive wine. Just 53% got the answer correct (basically, chance).
  • Be aware that technology is always criticized, whether it’s comic books, movies, television, computers, or the internet—and has been since the Gutenberg printing press in 1440. We need to be cautious about technophobic approaches and be sure decisions are based on good data.

How to Debunk Misinformation

  • Just being aware of these cognitive biases matters. It allows us to make more informed choices.
  • Debunking does work. It is up to us to do it.
  • The backfire effect—the belief that people become more entrenched in their views when presented with facts—isquite rare.
  • Rule #1: Listen! People’s concerns are based on different things.
  • Using good science matters! Referring to the body of evidence is likely to be more persuasive.
  • Highlight the gaps in logic used to push the misinformation: anecdotes, things that play into negativity bias, testimonials, misrepresentations of risk, conspiracy theories, etc.
  • Be humble. Be nice. And be authentic when defining misinformation.
  • Creativity wins. We have to start using narratives, stories, art, and humor, in order to get across the good stuff.
  • Good science should be shareable.
  • Always remember that the general public is your audience, not hardcore deniers.
  • Relax! Current research shows how important it is just to have people pause … and reflect. By nudging Canadians to pause first—and share after—we can have a measurable impact on people sharing misinformation.
  • Join Science Up First (#ScienceUpFirst) / @scienceupfirst). It is an initiative for us to share good credible information on social media. Go Science!

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