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Lab Rats

Quest for the magic pipette

How timely intervention can make all the difference in science careers

13 August 2006

Zapped: a scientist's calling isn't always straightforward

Here was real life, real knowledge waiting to be probed and interrogated, begging to be understood

Some people think science, or its practice, is like climbing a mountain. Others consider it an adventure in which years of hard work and lofty toil might finally yield some otherwise unattainable treasure. To me, it’s like being a magician’s apprentice.

If you’ve ever read much fantasy literature, you know that at the moment of truth, just as the axe falls, the Princess will be saved, the dragon will be slain and all will be right in the world. I was addicted to sword and sorcery tales as a child. I read Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannarra when I was eleven and never looked back. My favourite is Magician by Raymond E. Feist. It’s easy to identify with Pug, the eponymous hero. He starts off as the skinny little kid who bravely tries to stand up for himself against the older stronger boys. During their mid-teens, the boys are chosen for their apprenticeships, and woe betide any lad who finds himself without a master by sundown. Needless to say, poor Pug is like the last kid to be picked on the soccer field. Just as he is about to face banishment from the castle, the old wizard takes pity on him and takes Pug to be his apprentice.

My scientific career followed a similar path. I was always a bit fair-to-middling at school. I wasn’t into sports enough to stand out, despite being over six feet tall by the time I was sixteen. No matter how much my basketball coach yelled and cajoled and begged, I couldn’t get it together on the court. Academically, I was interested in my subjects, but high school science class failed to inspire and I saw no future in being able to conjugate verbs in a long dead language, or list the wives of Henry VIII.

I was, you might say (and my parents often did), a perennial CDB (‘could do better’). The same was true at university, much to the despair of some of my tutors who obviously saw something in me I didn’t notice when I looked in the mirror. I enjoyed studying biology, but girls, beer and playing in a rock band seemed much more fun.

As graduation loomed, I was facing banishment from the castle, or at least the prospects of the dole office and temp work, when a Kindly Old Wizard took pity on me. He was a professor in the Cell Physiology department and needed a technician. At the time the work seemed daunting, but in retrospect it was a piece of cake. And as long as I did reasonably well at preparing tissue slices, I was allowed further into the inner sanctum – the electrophysiology lab. I was speechless the first time I watched The Prof or Postdoc Matt do patch-clamp experiments: carefully forming a giga-ohm seal between a micro-pipette and the membrane of a brain cell, and then manipulating the very workings of the cell itself in order to probe its deepest electrical secrets.

Within a short period of time I was absolutely hooked. And looking back, I think that’s what The Prof thought would happen. I really wanted to learn more – the world of biology had come alive in a truly amazing way. No more dry and dusty textbooks, no more daft and destined-to-fail lab experiments that I only half understood. Here was real life, real knowledge waiting to be probed and interrogated, begging to be understood. I would go half-crazy every time I asked a question and the reply was “well, we’re not sure. We think…”. How could you not know? How could all these things still be hidden away?

There was only one choice in my life from then on. I had to take the next step on the path to becoming a true Mage. Or in other words, I had to get my Ph.D. Being a technician had given me valuable insight into how hard this was likely to be. Not hard like having to face off an army of Orcs and Dark Elves with a dwindling supply of Dragon’s Bane and a broken wand or anything, but hard graft none-the-less. I saw the strain the others went through – the graduate students, the postdocs, the professors, each facing their own private agonies: students desperately trying to understand, postdocs desperately trying to be perfect, professors desperately trying to get enough grant money to keep everyone employed. But all of this didn’t faze me, and it still doesn’t.

I’m past graduate school now. I passed the final test at my Institute of Dark and Arcane Magicks. At my thesis defense, I was put on trial by a team of Wizards, I faced them, and I survived. Now I’m a postdoc – a Journeyman, you might say, working for a new Master at new institute, allowed some freedoms, but not yet ready to be a Master myself and to take on my own apprentice. Before this happens, I need to learn and perfect my art, hone my skills and stay hungry for the first chance I get to strike off alone.