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Scientific spaces, scientific thinking

Does the size of your lab bench matter?

Jennifer Rohn 8 July 2006

Border and chaos: lab layouts may affect creativity

Forget feng shui – I'd settle just for four square inches to set down my beaker

Laboratory science, like most human endeavors, is a creative process. So as the thinking involved tends to be as much intuitive as analytical, scientists can be greatly affected by their environment.

There is no set formula for the modern laboratory space, no scientific method for its optimal aesthetic design. If you’re lucky enough to be a scientist at the Salk Institute in California, for example, you’ll find yourself in a glorious cathedral designed by the architect Louis I. Kahn. Researchers at Cambridge University in Britain may end up either in quaint period rooms from the golden era of molecular biology, or in ultra-modern, 21st century purpose-built buildings with lustrous surfaces and floods of natural light. Up until recently, a world-famous cancer research lab in Baltimore was located on the premises of a renovated supermarket complete with a checkered tile floor. And those unfortunate enough to be seconded to large universities with science departments built in the Sixties will most likely spend their days in large, graceless concrete cubes, monuments to squat functionality.

The sole constant feature of laboratory spaces are their bays: squared U-shaped workbenches of about stomach height, fused together and repeated across the length of the room – science’s answer to the open-plan office. Within the two long arms of each bay, two to four scientists can work comfortably, either standing or sitting on tall stools. This arrangement works well for researchers: it provides the illusion of privacy when they need to concentrate, yet they are never far away from anyone else should the imperative arise to chat about an experiment (or that sexy new postdoc in the lab next door).

When I began my Ph.D. research at the University of Washington in Seattle (in a building of the Sixties squat cube variety), I was fortunate enough to command an entire half-bay to myself, with a vast expanse of grey workbench. I adored working at that bench. At the beginning, I kept my counter-top lovingly sterile with alcohol and bleach so that my tiny bacterial viruses could not escape as I sweet-talked them into taking up bits of foreign DNA. I somewhat obsessive-compulsively aligned my test-tube racks and pipetting devices at perfect ninety-degree angles as I worked, and all my bottles of chemicals and solutions were neatly lined up in alphabetical order on the superstructure shelving over the bench, protected by a small Perspex lip designed to keep objects from falling off during any tremors or nearby volcanic eruptions. (Later, the neatness bug wore off, and I always seemed to lag just behind the mess. But with a lot of space, you can get away with that sort of behavior.)

An even bigger luxury was the desk tucked into the base of the bay’s U-arm, where I could read articles, plan my experiments and pin up the obligatory Gary Larson cartoons of white-coated nerds at play. I could either screen out the world in that little niche, or choose to exchange sardonic banter with the labmate at the desk facing mine in the next bay (invisible behind the bulletin board between us). Sunlight would splash onto my open notebook as I recorded the day’s activities, and I remember thinking, naïve youth that I was – isn’t it great to be in a career where you get so much space?

I was in for a rude awakening when I moved to London for my post-doctoral training in biochemistry and cell biology. The famous Imperial Cancer Research Fund (now called Cancer Research UK’s London Research Laboratories), housed in a seven-story red-brick building in Lincoln's Inn Fields, looked perfectly inoffensive from the outside, but within, the labs were cramped and claustrophobic. As the newbie, I was assigned the least salubrious area of the entire room: an astonishingly small space of about two square feet with my back to the radioactivity workbench. And worse, I was somehow expected to share the bay with five other researchers.

With about twenty scientists crammed into only three and a half bays, tempers frayed. Boundaries were scrupulously drawn with strips of lurid-yellow Biohazard tape, measured to the nearest millimeter. Border skirmishes were common – even a finger’s width of infringement could lead to daylong sulks. If you went on holiday, you’d return to find your space stealthily colonized by an audacious neighbor.

To cope, it was absolutely necessary to be tidy. My opposite neighbor in the next bay was not a tidy person. His allotted two square feet of bench space was entirely filled with dusty stacks of scientific journals and photocopied articles, untouched for months and listing at perilous angles. Undaunted, he would perform entire experiments kept precariously balanced on his lab stool, crouched over protectively as minute adjustments were made to the various tubes and samples.

The airspace was thoroughly carved out, too. Each bay had its own CD player on maximum volume, which was fine if you were buried deep within the U-shape but not so great if you were situated, as I was, on the border zone with another bay. Our turf's music was firmly controlled by the hip French postdoc in the bottom of our U, and I grew used to hearing Air, DJ Dimitri or the Propellerheads mixed uneasily with the German choices adjacent, where Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen and Meatloaf were popular. Walking along the bays from one end of the long rectangular lab space to the other was like tuning the FM dial – music of all sorts mixed with conversation in at six languages at any given time, with the static of clashing sound waves separating each new frequency.

I soon found that my creativity was blunted in that lab. The crowdedness would seem to be the obvious culprit – but then, the lab itself was old and ugly, and I do tend to respond positively to clean lines and pristine surfaces. The scientist in me wondered: was it the lack of space or the lack of aesthetics that was so affecting my thought patterns? Would more calming surroundings open the avenues of thought despite the sheer proximity of my fellow neighbors?

I was soon able to find out. Halfway through my stint at Imperial Cancer, the boss decided that our lab should be renovated. An architect was hired; there was talk of people movement, cable management, anti-seasonal affective disorder fluorescence. At that time, a big debate was raging amongst laboratory architect types about open versus closed bays, which had to do whether the open U’s faced the main entrance or rather the opposite windows, which in turn had implications for people movement and where the corridor between bays would go, exposed to the outside world or cosily tucked in, respectively. We screened out this jabber as we screened out everything else, but I once overheard one of the technicians muttering, "Forget feng shui – I'd settle just for four square inches to set down my beaker."

Ultimately, the refurbishment didn’t end up curing the space problem; we were now twenty people crowded into a beautiful but still just-as-cramped facility. And my creativity remained blunted – until my next assignment, in an ugly but spacious modern lab in the Netherlands.

It had been a pretty good experiment.