Lab Laocoon

A science sculpture dedicated to lonely post-docs everywhere

Kersten Hall 20 May 2007

Throughout my years as an increasingly disgruntled post-doctoral fellow in molecular biology, I found myself muttering over racks of Eppendorf tubes that the modern science lab is an ideal new literary and artistic arena in which to expose age-old human foibles. Around the same time, I finally decided that the demands of lab life (long hours agonising over failed experiments, long evenings poring over grant applications and weekends spent immersed in draft manuscripts for submission, not to mention the complicated and often toxic politics) were all detrimental to a healthy family life. Increasingly I found that thinking and writing about the bigger issues surrounding lab research was not only more interesting but also increasingly important. So I've taken time out to juggle studying for an MA in History and Philosophy of Science, focusing on molecular biology, with raising our young son. Who knows, I may even write up my box files of notes into that lab lit novel that I've been promising myself to write (haven't we all?).

Before I hung up my white coat, turned off the Bunsen and laid down my Gilson pipette for the last time, however, I tried to express the agonies and loneliness of the itinerant post-doc in a sculpture using materials available in the lab. My eye had fallen upon a broken, discarded old gel electrophoresis tank and my imaginative cogs began slowly to grind into motion once more. With a vague nod to the 'Laocoon' on display in the Vatican Collection, I constructed this wire-entangled figure making the 'skin' from fragments clipped at random from scientific papers.

As for the meaning behind it …

Is the figure breaking free of its bonds and rising from the gel tank as a symbol of the noble battle of scientists to liberate us from disease and ignorance? Or is the figure sinking down into the gel tank as if it were a coffin, being crushed beneath the weight of the lid, struggling in vain to escape the tangled wires and becoming entrapped – signifying the legions of beleaguered PhD students and post-docs slaving away for long hours in the lab in the face of bounced grants, rejected papers, failed experiments, dismal short-term contracts and tyrannical lab bosses?

As for the figure being smothered in a 'skin' consisting of a random jumble of technical jargon – I won't spoil things by filling in all the gaps, but rather leave it for the readers of to make up their own mind.