Lab Rats

My bizarre lab life

From the sublime to the ridiculous (and the downright mundane)

Helen Pickersgill 5 June 2005

Pickersgill pops into the lab after a sunny terrace lunch

I enter the lab, switch on a multitude of electrical devices and scribble far too much information on 50 tiny little plastic tubes...

It’s a bizarre life…

The life of a scientist, that is. I feel like I have two different jobs – sort of a double personality. On the one hand, we scientists are highly sophisticated theoretical beings, fully knowledgeable of all research done within our subject area, and a few others besides, spending years trying to think of something nobody else has thought of before. Like ever. And then, on the other hand, we spend an almost equal amount of time testing our hypotheses by experimentation in the lab. These two aspects of science are inseparable. However, practically speaking, they couldn’t be further apart.

Let’s start with the theoretical lifestyle. A scientist aims to become an expert in a specific field in order to constantly expand knowledge and inspire new ideas. This means keeping up with the literature and travelling to seminars and conferences to listen and interact with other scientists working on related topics. It’s how science moves forward. Without communication we are severely disadvantaged, if not completely nonviable. The upshot of all this mental research should eventually (hopefully) be a good testable hypothesis.

Which brings us to lifestyle number two, where everything changes. This commonly begins, in my case anyway, by entering the lab, normally to the sound of Phil Collins or similar mindless drab pop, switching on a multitude of electrical devices and scribbling far too much information on 50 tiny little plastic tubes. The laboratory skills that I have proudly developed include multitasking to the extent that I require three separate electronic timers at one time and knowing all the words to the current Top 40. This fits in nicely with the knowledge I have acquired after reading and formulating in excess of 1000 research papers and attending many international conferences. Communication in the lab is widespread, but occurs on a vastly different level. Commonly, this is written communication in the form of Notes, stuck wherever there happens to be a flat surface, kindly requesting you to switch off, close, clean, replace or kill the completely worthless and incompetent dope who used up all of an important enzyme and didn’t reorder it.

Experimental science is a skill that is developed entirely separately from the skills required for mental science. Therefore, you can excel in one but struggle in the other. It’s often fascinating to observe a highly intellectual colleague who has all the good ideas and asks all the best questions, suffer hopelessly filling a tube with a sterile liquid using only one hand. However, there are maybe subtle connections between the two jobs, for example a necessity to be creative, both in mind as well as in body. I must be able to think of an interesting and testable question involving a novel approach from a clever perspective, whilst being able to safely insert ten glass flasks in the 37-degree incubator when there are only eight spaces available, without risking the wrath of a Note.

I don’t think I would necessarily prefer a world in which laboratory work was not required in science. In some respects it provides a welcome respite from mental research and it’s possible that other jobs could benefit from a similar approach. Maybe they could introduce a playroom at the office – an hour of Lego in between board meetings would probably go down quite well. However, it’s not always fun and games. I often have moments of despair when I realise I’ve spent precious hours if not days of my life chasing minuscule glass coverslips around a Petri dish with a pair of tweezers – for the love of God, why? Another consequence of scientists having essentially two jobs is that we have no free time and in essence no life – or, to be consistent, only a bizarre one. But this is a separate issue I won’t explore here. I simply don’t have time – I have to make a presentation for an international conference and go heat up some plastic tubes.