Lab Rats: Scene I

A six-part play from the LabLit fiction series

Robin Plevin 27 January 2008

The supervisor runs the lab. He pisses on the post-docs, the post-docs piss on the PhD students and the PhD students piss on the technicians. Quite simple, really.

Editor’s note: We are pleased to present the first episode of a six-part lab play by Professor Robin Plevin about the sins and secrets of a group of university researchers in Scotland.

ABSTRACT (to be put into the theatre programme)

The university research laboratory: a glossary of terms

PhD students come to study for three years in a laboratory on a research topic and do enough experiments to write a thesis, get a doctorate and become a post-doctoral assistant (post-doc). A post-doc works in the laboratory to generate experimental results. This allows them to write papers to establish themselves in the world of science. After several temporary contracts if they are good enough they get a lectureship (assistant professorship) and become a group leader or supervisor. The supervisor oversees all the research projects. He/she (usually a he) gets money by writing research grant proposals for funding and prestige by publishing research papers in research journals. The world’s most famous scientific journal is Nature. The promotion prospects within the university are governed by the amount of research funding the lecturer gets and the number of research papers published in prestige journals. Thus, the lecturer is reliant on PhD students and post-docs and other assistants called technicians to produce results that lead to promotion.


James: late 20s – a Scottish post-doc returned from America
Simon: A cocky London wide boy, super confident – a post-doc
Noreen: English rich middle class, well spoken – a post-doc
Ian: Early 30s rabid football fan, a manic depressive – post-doc.
Del boy: Early 20s, a geek, shy – a PhD student
Cathy: Glasgow middle class early 20s – a PhD student
Sandra: Glasgow working class early 20s – a technician
Mike Waterman: late 40s/50s – lecturer and group leader
Jean: Glasgow working class late 40/50 – a cleaner
Eddie: Glasgow working class late 40s early 50s – a security guard
Prof Liley: Glasgow middle class – head of the department, late 50s

Scene 1. Introduction

The set is a university research laboratory. There are a number of benches with apparatus on them. Each person has a defined work area on the benches. Only one space is occupied, by Del. On the left hand side is a sink where Jean is washing beakers. Near to the laboratory is a very small office. It is empty.

James: Hello…Hello, anybody in?

Jean: What do you want, son?

James: I was looking for Mike Waterman. Is he in?

Jean: Well, that’s his office but he’s no’ always there.

James: Do you know where I might find him?

Jean: I think he’s doon at coffee. Del Boy, where’s Waterman?

Del: At coffee.

Jean: There you go then. He’ll be back soon, he can never sit too long, got a cucumber up his arse.

James: Oh, Right…thanks, I’ll wait.

Jean: Are you American?

James: No, I’m Scottish.

Jean: You don’t sound Scottish.

James: I guess I’ve picked up a bit of an accent.

Jean: You’ve been in America then?

James: Four years.

Jean: Are you back for good?

James: I hope so.

Jean: It’s all white settlers here now, son. (James looks puzzled). English folk!

James: Right.

(Eddie the security guard enters)

Eddie: Right you, what’s the story?

James: What story?

Eddie: Who are you? Did you no see the sign ‘All visitors have to be signed in’?

James: Yes, I did.

Eddie: Well?

James: I’m not a visitor, I have a job here.

Eddie: Who wi?

James: Mike Waterman, Professor Michael Waterman. (Hands him the letter). As you see can see it starts today.

Eddie: I can read and he’s no’ a Professor.

James: I’ve come from Boston. I’m James (puts his hands out to shake).

Eddie: Well son, you’re no’ in tea party country now. Until you have a staff card, you’re just a tourist (hands the letter back).

Jean: Go easy, Eddie. Son, there’s a rule about signing in. Eddie’s boss wi’d go mental at him if he found you in the building and your name wisnae in the book.

Eddie: Next time sign in.

James: Sure.

Eddie: Fuckin’ students! (exits)

(Ian enters)

Ian: Hello, who might you be?

James: I’m James Conway.

Ian: Ah, the new post-doc. Pleased to meet you. I’m Ian. Your reputation precedes you. It’s not often we get someone from a big American lab coming here. Not to work anyway. When did you get in?

James: This morning. I can’t check into my digs until later, so I thought I’d get my locker and staff card.

Ian: Mike’ll give you a gold star for that, he likes the keen types.

James: Is he a good boss?

Ian: That’s an interesting question. He’s fine as long as you don’t expect a social life. In fact…any life at all. He’ll be up from coffee soon, the others are just outside.

(They all come in laughing and capering)

Sandra: (pointing at Simon) Oh, he farted in the lift, I almost suffocated.

Cathy: Simon, that was disgusting. You need your insides cleaned out.

Simon: Don’t worry, that’ll come soon, I feel a rumbling down below.

Noreen: Oh, you’re so crude.

Ian: Everyone, this is James Conway. (They say hello almost collectively). This is Noreen, a post-doc.

Noreen: Head post-doc, actually.

Ian: Simon’s a post-doc, Cathy a PhD student and finally Sandra, the technician.

Sandra: Hi. As you can see the technicians come last round here.

Ian: Of course they do. The supervisor runs the lab. He pisses on the post-docs, the post-docs piss on the PhD students and the PhD students piss on the technicians. Quite simple, really.

James: Technicians are well-respected in the States and they work damned hard.

Simon: Well, they don’t work hard round here.

Cathy: Sandra works just as hard as we do.

Simon: I know she does but you have to admit that she’s the exception that proves the rule. You know the old saying – never have sex with a technician because they’ll stop halfway through for their tea break.

Cathy: What brings you back from the States? A bit of a climb-down to come here.

Noreen: That not true – we have an international reputation, Mike said so. We recently published…

Simon: Is it true what they say?

James: About what?

Simon: That in the big labs it’s really cutthroat?

James: Well…

Simon: I’ve heard that in some labs in the States they have twenty post-docs. Twenty. They put two, sometimes three, on one project and whoever makes the discovery first gets the glory. The rest are losers.

James: What are you implying?

Simon: Oh, nothing.

Noreen: Well, the competition isn’t any easier across this side of the Atlantic, not anymore.

Cathy: Why did you come back to Scotland?

James: I’d had enough of America, does there need to be any other reason? The lab was great but I didn’t want to settle down there. I want my long-term career to be here in Scotland.

Simon: Are you looking for a lectureship then?

James: Sure.

Ian: There’s one going in this department.

James: I know, Mike mentioned it on the phone.

Noreen: It’s mine, he said so. I’m the first-choice candidate.

Simon: Steady Noreen, at least wait until the advert goes out. (To James). It’s the same here, like everywhere else. You do your PhD, work your arse off doing a couple of post-docs and then you have to fight like mad for the few lectureships going. Looks like we’re going to be rivals.

James: I guess so.

Simon: Well, I’ve got to warn you, mate, I play dirty.

Ian: Noreen’s favourite, she’s got a Nature paper. Just last year.

James: Yes I know, I read it.

Ian: And?

James: It’s all right.

Noreen: All right! It’s superb.

Ian: The first Nature paper from this lab. Mike dined out on it for weeks. Noreen mentions it almost every day.

Noreen: You’re just jealous.

Ian: (ignoring her). He says it will get him his Professorship. He’s up for promotion, should know in a few months’ time. That’s what it’s like here. If you get a big paper or lots of research money your chances of getting promoted are much better. Mike’s pulling his hair out just now. He’s trying to get a Japanese company to invest two million quid in the lab, if he gets it he gets his chair no problem. But they’re not int –

James: (Interrupting) He told me he was already a Professor.

Ian: Mike telling porkies, what a surprise! Let’s just say he’s a little prone to…exaggeration (sees Derek slipping past). Del Boy, Del Boy, come here. Del Boy’s our newest PhD student. A bit shy. Derek, this is James the new post-doc.

James: Please to meet you, Derek.

Ian: Del Boy is our lab computer games freak and Star Trek aficionado.

Del: It’s not Star Trek, it’s Star Wars.

Ian: Star Wars, Star Trek, whatever – so if you want to get along with him it’s best to talk like R2D2.

James: Did you see the last one?

Del: Aye.

James: Wasn’t it great?

Del: It was all right. Better than the first two.

James: But not as good as the others…

Noreen: (sniggering) Nice to know you two have something in common.

Ian: You’ve got the bench next to Del. He can regale you with a description of the latest computer games.

(Mikes walks in)

Mike: Talking again, Ian. If it isn’t conversations about football it’s the Celtic Home page. You’ll never cut it as scientist if –

Ian: Mike, this is James Conway

Mike: Oh. James, hello. I didn’t expect you so early. When did you get in?

James: Just this morning, my digs were…

Mike: Keen to get started, excellent. Have you met everyone?

James: I think so. Ian was kind enough to introduce me to your staff.

Mike: Team, we say team here. Is that not what they say in America? Thank you, Ian, you can carry on with your work now. (Ian moves away) If you put your bag down I can show you around the department. We’ve got some very good equipment here, perhaps not as good as Boston but we do very well. We recently had a Nature paper, the first one from the lab (people look at each other). This way. (they start to leave; Mikes shouts back towards the lab) Remember everyone, the practice talks for the Japanese visit are at four. (To James) I have to keep them on their toes.

(James and Mike leave the lab)

Simon: Well, what do you think of our new post-doc?

Noreen: Seems a bit full of himself.

Ian: Just because he put you in your place.

Cathy: He must be good.

Noreen: Why do you say that?

Cathy: Because Mike took him on without an interview and he’s never done that before.

Simon: I think you fancy him.

Cathy: Oh, please!

Simon: Don’t worry, he won’t last long.

Cathy: Why not?

Simon: Noreen will club him to death with her Nature paper. Hey, he’s left his bag…I wonder what he’s been reading on the plane over (opens the bag).

Cathy: Simon, that’s really bad manners.

Simon: He won’t mind, he’s American – they go into places without asking. Usually countries. Wait, he’s got his CV in here. Let’s have a look at his publications. (reading). Shit, this boy is good. A first name Science paper and two Biochemistry papers. Fuck, a PNAS paper coming out as well. (Puts the CV back in the bag) We’re going to have trouble with him.

Noreen: Science isn’t as good as Nature.

Ian: It’s pretty close and a PNAS paper as well? That’s one of the world’s top journals. Admit it, Noreen – you’re humped!

Noreen: Getting a lectureship isn’t all about publications. It’s about other things, good ideas, communication…

Ian: Yes, Noreen – if you say so. But that’s not what you said last week.

Simon: A week is a long time in science. He probably has other papers in the pipeline that aren’t on his CV. This is bad.

Ian: I still can’t work out why he wants to work here. He could go anywhere in the country, to some big group – but he comes to this shithole.

Simon: Well, time will solve that mystery. Right, back to work. Del Boy, have you got those results?

Del Boy: Aye.

Simon: Well, let's have a look at them.

(Derek comes from behind the bench and hand over the results. Simon reads them.)

Simon: These are pretty crap, eh? They’re not the same results I got, are they?

Del Boy: No.

Simon: No, they’re fucking not. I have a novel idea for a great paper, possibly Nature

Noreen: Hardly.

Simon: (Ignores her) I do the preliminary experiments and they look good. Mike takes the project off me and gives it to you and you can’t even fucking get the same results I did. First-years, they’re a waste of time.

Sandra: Ignore him, Del. It takes time to get your experiments going.

Simon: How do you know, you’re only a technician. (To Del Boy) You should spend less time pulling your wire over Princess Leia and more time doing experiments. Mike’ll go ballistic when he sees the results.

Sandra: Talking of Mike, I can hear him coming back.

Ian: Everyone make like they’re working. Not that he’ll notice, his head’ll be so far up new boy’s arse he won’t be able to see a thing.

(Mike comes in with James)

Mike: As you can see we’ve got everything for your project, so you’ll be able to get started right away.

James: Sounds good, although I’ll need to order some things.

Mike: What things?

James: Well a new pump for my columns, the one you’ve got is about ten years old. (The others stare with amazement). And I notice that you don’t have a full set of pipettes for each person. I am sorry, but I don’t want to get a contamination (the others start to giggle).

Mike: You don’t trust our working practices.

James: It’s not a question of trust. It’s a question of professionalism. You wouldn’t want my results to be…suspect?

Mike: No.

James: Well?

Mike: (Pause). Right, fine…Cathy will show you the ordering procedure.

James: Thank you. I’ve also got a copy of my CV for you in my bag (goes to open the zipper). Strange, I must have left it open.

Mike: That’s not wise, especially in Glasgow. There’s a lot of stealing.

James: Right.

Mike: You can’t trust anyone around here.

[End of Scene 1]

Continued next week...