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Lab Rats

Deal with it

To a beginner, the languages of poker and science are equally inscrutable

Ian Brooks 1 May 2006

Beginner's stuck: lab language can impede the uninitiated

Trust me: if you’re in a hurry, don’t ask a scientist a question

So I play poker. I play a lot of poker. In fact I think I might play a little too much poker, but that’s perhaps fodder for a different story. Poker…It’s a game where you play against yourself as much as the people around you. There’s a great deal of strategy, as well as bluffing and lying and trying to read people. A lot of adrenaline can get released during your typical poker game. I’ve seen seasoned players, with vastly more experience than I have, fumbling their chips because their hands were shaking after winning a big pot.

That’s one of the things I love about poker. You’ll be betting against someone for a big stack of chips. You’re fairly sure you’ve got the best hand. Your heart is pounding and you’re starting to sweat, but you daren’t show any emotion in case you give a "read" to your opponent – the so-called ‘poker face’. And then the rush of seeing your opponent’s cards at the end of a hand, and slowly laying yours down, a better, bigger hand and raking those chips in…

I’ve been playing for quite a while now, and I like to teach people how to play. A new player can often mean easy money – although they do have a tendency, right at the beginning, to win after screwing up the odds by betting badly or not knowing when to fold a mediocre hand. Of all the aspects of poker that I enjoy teaching, the language of poker is the most fun.

For example, a few weeks ago I was playing in a big tournament game and there were a couple of "newbies" who were really struggling to keep up with what was going on. I could see it was partly the language barrier. The game can move quite fast, so if you’re unsure what’s happening you need to listen to (and understand) the table talk to keep up with the flow of play. I was chuckling about this later as I counted my winnings. Of course, I also very generously offered to buy the newbies a drink – after all, it used to be their money.

In the end, you know someone is getting the hang of things when they can confidently state something like, "I thought I was doing fine because I flopped the nuts, then caught top pair on fourth street, but he boated me on the river". In fact, the moment they start talking like this is also about the moment they start winning their money back, and therefore time to look for a new student to fund your gambling problem.

I got to thinking about this because a new graduate student just joined our lab. He’s here on a four month rotation, and ours is one of three or four different labs he’ll be working in to get a flavor of what’s on offer during his first year of graduate school. Next year he’ll pick a lab and begin the real process of graduate research.

He’s a good kid and desperately keen, but right now he’s also not much more than an undergraduate with a big ego. That’s not meant to sound mean; he’s really excited about being in grad school but – unlike the rest of us – he obviously remembers his undergrad biology labs and lectures. He thinks he can advise me on what I’m doing. It’s rather sweet really, but he’ll learn better soon enough. One of the great joys of taking him under my wing for the next few weeks is watching him learn and grow and discover what "real" science is all about. And one of the things I’ll enjoy teaching him is the language of science.

Now obviously, language and communication are key elements defining us as a species. I think most professions have their own language. I have a lawyer friend who can confuse me with law-speak just as easily as my bass-fisherman acquaintance does when he warms to his favourite subject. But science, I believe, takes things a step further. Our "language" isn’t just a collection of words known only to insiders, but an entirely new method of communication. It isn’t just knowing what words like "glycosylation" or "SDS-PAGE" really mean. It’s also in how we speak, how we write, how we talk. Trust me: if you’re in a hurry, don’t ask a scientist a question. We have a tendency not only to answer your question, but then to expound on its variations, following each possibility to its logical conclusion. You’ll be expected not only to join in, but enjoy a vigorous debate. And the question can really be as simple as "where is the nearest gas station?".

When I was in graduate school, if I had to ask my advisor a quick question, I would hide a countdown-timer in my pocket. I’d preset the timer to go off after about ten seconds, so that if my advisor started waffling on I could secretly press the Start button and get a quick exit by pretending I had to rush to finish an experiment.

Recently, I was showing our new grad student how to perform a fairly simple experiment. By his nervous grimace, mistimed nods and odd questions, I could tell he wasn’t following me as I went into the details. Because I was also busy with my own research, I ended up dumbing it down:

"OK. Now add the blue stuff to the white stuff and put it on the shaky thing. OK. Now count to 60. OK. Now spread it on that dish covered in goo. OK. Now put it in that thing over there that looks like an oven. Well done. You just cloned something."

I could tell he was embarrassed, but give a him a couple of months and he’ll start to learn the language of science. He’ll begin to learn how to talk like a scientist, how to explain what he needs in a language his colleagues can all understand. This will progress as he attends seminars and begins to follow what’s being presented. The seminars are aimed at general audience, albeit a general audience with the education level and experience of PhD-level scientists. He has a long, long way to go, but the baby steps can be fun too. There’ll be another growth spurt as he begins to get into reading the scientific literature. Soon he’ll think he understands what is being presented in each scientific paper he reads, but then he’ll realize that he only thinks he knows, and really he’s just grazing the surface of each article.

I’m sympathetic because I remember starting grad school and feeling totally out of my depth: the despondency that goes with not understanding straight off what seemed so obvious to more senior scientists; the late nights and frustration of trying to write in a concise and technical way so that my advisor would at least look at my data; the embarrassment that went with my first couple of attempts at presenting my data in a seminar format, standing in front of a lectern in a room of grumpy senior scientist and failing miserably to justify my existence. It seemed so easy to others at the time. I look back at it and laugh because it seems easy to me now. It’s a long, hard road, but completely necessary if you want to succeed as a scientist. With patience and lots of practice, our new grad student will learn the language of science – and everything that comes after.

But until then, it’s also his turn to deal – and help supplement his helpful postdoc’s wages with that stipend he thinks he’s earning.