Lab Rats

Blank slate

An episode of grant-induced writer's block

Ian Brooks 11 February 2007

White noise: the barrier of science-speak

A graduate student was weeping, bent over a lab notebook. Another experiment failed, another week gone...

The lab was quiet. Well, it was as quiet as most labs ever got, which is to say fairly noisy, but he didn’t notice. It was just background noise; white noise that was easily ignored as he stared at a blank computer screen.

Loudest noise of all, and somehow muffling other sounds, was the whirr and hum of a -80C freezer, laboring under the thrum of the off-kilter air-conditioning unit blasting hot air into the room. It was cold outside, below freezing some days, but you’d never have guessed it looking at the people working in the lab. One guy, a technician, was even wearing shorts. He changed into them when he arrived each morning.

A PCR thermocycler bleeped mournfully, suddenly. It was a great invention…when it worked. All you had to do was mix a small, submicroscopic amount of DNA with a mixture of the chemical bases it was composed of, add a couple of primers – short stretches of DNA that would be used to “prime” the copying process – and a dash of an enzyme that loved to copy DNA, and off you go. A couple of hours later you’ve got billions of identical copies of your DNA fragment of choice, enough for further analysis, whether you needed to clone a fragment, or sequence it and try and decipher what protein it coded for.

He knew all of this without consciously thinking at all. Just voices and experience in the back of his mind. A mind that refused to relax. But…there was something scratching at the periphery of the white noise. He turned, and saw behind him the source of the new and irritating sound. A graduate student was weeping, bent over a lab notebook. Tears splashed down on a blank photograph. Where there should have been a picture of the distinctive glowing ladder of a freshly analyzed DNA sequence, there was nothing. Another experiment failed, another week gone.

He understood how the kid felt. Kid! The “kid” was at least 25, and already had a couple of years experience at graduate level research. Irritation flared suddenly: here he was after years of hard work and failed experiments, trying to get some serious work done, andthis weeping infant was disturbing his concentration. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the lab, as the old aphorism should have read.

Without thinking about it he snapped, “For God’s sake!”

The student turned, red, sleepless eyes rimmed with dark lines.

“You forgot to put the bloody primers in again, didn’t you?” he barked, knowing the answer.

The student didn’t speak, a quick humiliated nod and then silence.

“Look, we all do it now and then,” he said. “Just re-transform your cells, and re-do the mini-prep. You’ll be ready to try again in a few days.”

This elicited wails of despair and the student left the room, the thought of having to repeat the procedure for the umpteenth time obviously too much for its fragile mind. For a second there was sympathy, but then nothing. Emotion disappeared in a cold wash of logic. He re-read the email from the editor of Lablit:

I understand that the process of writing a grant, preparing for a conference and now writing a manuscript for submission is grueling, but your latest piece is three weeks late. Any chance of seeing it any time soon?

Damn, it wasn’t fair! Focusing on work so much over the last few weeks seemed to have driven all the creative juices from him. He had ideas for stories, old tales and adventures popping into his mind, but they kept being driven away by the austerity of scientific technical writing. Each time he began a piece, he was suddenly overwhelmed by passive vs. active voice, split infinitives, needless contraction and the grand old enemy. personalization. How was he supposed to write under these mental conditions? The next line of her email frustrated him even more:

If you’re finding it hard to write, how about a short piece on how the grant writing process can stifle your non-scientific creative process?

Damn her! As if it was that easy to just sit down, and put pen to paper to write another story of lab life!