Lab Rats

Tough scrutiny

My day under the microscope

Andrew Wood 7 August 2005

Just another normal day: Wood meets and greets the general public from inside the lab installation*

[The CD player] would probably do more to convey the atmosphere of a normal working laboratory than any other single piece of equipment...

Editor’s note: Recently, an unusual installation appeared at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London: Genes Talking, a working laboratory manned by real scientists, performing experiments in daily shifts to help understand more about the genetics of language disorders (read more about this event here). asked Andrew Wood, one of the researchers on display, how it felt to do science in a fishbowl for a day.

When the group email asking for volunteers arrived in my inbox, I was immediately keen to participate in Genes Talking. I had been to the ICA to attend exhibits and parties on a couple of occasions, but as a PhD student in molecular genetics, I had never expected to be so directly involved in such an event. After briefly scanning through the background literature for the project prior to the twenty minute introductory session, it was time for the opening drinks reception which was attended by a fascinating mix of people. A couple of games of 'spot the scientist' later (based on choice of clothing, make up, body posture etc.), I found myself getting into several semi-philosophical debates about the relationship between science and art and what each discipline can hope to gain from the other, a question that seemed to be central to the whole event. On a slightly cynical note, one difference between the cultures surrounding the two was nicely illustrated by the differing styles of 'Thank-you' speech given by the scientific and artistic organisers, respectively. On the one hand, Dr Julie Webb gave a heartfelt, if slightly understated, thank you to the scientific sponsors and contributors, whereas when the ICA representative spoke, it was hugs, kisses and bunches of flowers all round.

I and a post-doctoral colleague from my lab at Guy's Hospital had been scheduled to be present on the Tuesday of the second week of the installation, and I arrived unsure of the effects that the bombs in London on the previous Thursday would have had on the number of visitors. We chatted with Harry, the lab manager, about the teething troubles with facilities and equipment which anybody who has been involved in the set-up of a laboratory (even in a purpose-built space) would be unsurprised to hear had occurred. It was a relief to see that a radio had been urgently requested by those scientists who had worked on the first day, as this item would probably do more to convey the atmosphere of a normal working laboratory to members of the public than any other single piece of equipment.

And then it was time to get to work in the lab. As the first few people started to wander through and ask questions, it struck me that it would be hard to strike a balance between making a significant contribution to the scientific goals of the project while still getting the chance to talk and explain things to all of those that were interested. As it was the latter aspect that had been my main motivation for participating, I concentrated on this and encouraged most of the people that came by to ask questions and give their opinions. I have to say that many of the enquiries were along the lines of 'what's going on here, then?', although there were some notable exceptions, including one group of teenage girls who engaged me on the subject of the relative merits of capillary versus gel based electrophoresis systems in sequencing technologies. There were also people who were interested in the ethical aspects of the genomics revolution, such as the use of genetic profiling by insurance companies and prenatal screening and abortion. We had been instructed to remain impartial and stick to facts rather than opinions (which is perhaps not one of my stronger points!), so discussion on these topics was fairly superficial.

Overall I believe that the whole thing was an extremely positive experience, both for myself as an aspiring scientist aware of the need to engage with people outside of the scientific community, as well as for members of the public, for whom popular myths about laboratories and those that dwell within were hopefully dispelled. As for the question of the relationship between science and art, I can't help thinking that art has more to contribute to scientists on a personal level than it does to scientific endeavour per se. However, if the glamour and relative accessibility of the arts can be used to attract people who would not otherwise take an interest in scientific disciplines, then the indirect effects of reducing public ignorance and increasing the number of young people wanting to further their careers in these areas could be hugely beneficial to society.