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Lab Rats

Status quo

When the scientific dream isn't coming true

Nik Papageorgiou 17 December 2009

The daily grind: being a cog gets old

Every relationship can be infected with the germs of dissent, and this one is no different

Here’s how it starts:

A small child, no more than 6 years old, is taken to his grandfather’s funeral. Among the weeping relatives and the wailing old ladies, he suddenly comes face to face with the dead man’s face. He cries, mostly out of osmosis; but he’s too young to appreciate the spiritual dimension of death.

All he sees is a body. And when the lamentations subside, when the genuine sadness of separation wears off, the image of a well-dressed, seemingly peaceful, dead body remains engraved in his head.

It’s step one.

Years later, he’s developed a fascination for the natural world. Maybe it has something to do with that funeral, maybe not – but the passion of how the material world – birth, life, death – works, the nitty-gritty of all that; it clicks with him in the way that anything from worlds and civilisations clicks with anyone and draws them closer and closer.

It’s the birth of a scientist. This nexus of experiences guides and leads and drives and prods and probes and pushes and pulls until we see the young man face-deep in biology textbooks, reading everything and anything from population genetics to protein structures and enzyme catalysts.

That’s step two.

Who would fault a love like this? It’s the beginning of a wonderful romance that will find consummation in lab experiments and protocols and pipettes and Eppendorf tubes. Colourful bouquets of RT-PCR graphs will celebrate the relationship and anniversaries will look back from lab book entries with a smile. Look how far we’ve come.

And that’s far enough. Every relationship can be infected with the germs of dissent, and this one is no different.

Now, he always knew that the world’s not perfect. He’s a biologist for science’s sake! But still, those long nights in the white coat in the white room with the white bench, those aching pipetting thumbs, those lost weekends and lost holidays and lost friendships and lost time: well, it was all for something, wasn’t it?

It’s a PhD, after all. The highest degree – the first real honour the Academy will bestow upon you. And how many veteran Drs have you met that told you “everyone feels like that at some point” and “it’ll get easier” and “it’s totally worth it” and “it’s a PhD! If it was easy, everyone’d get one!”? (Well, sometimes it looks like everyone is.) But, still, the reason you went down this route is simple: you know those people who wake up in the morning and would rather die than go to work? You just didn’t want to be one of them. It must be. Any other reason, and you wouldn’t have lasted.

So those voices of your forefathers spur you on, because, after all, we all follow in the footsteps of others. And, hey, it’s science. The Highest Good. The neutral white pursuit of truth, so long as that truth does not exceed the boundaries of the cosmos. You love that stuff – you’ve loved it ever since you were a kid. And even though you tell yourself and others that you’re more pragmatic than that, deep down you hold onto that Hollywood notion that love prevails, and that all the sacrifices you’ve made on this particular altar/bench will be rewarded.

So there you are, in your colourful gown, following whatever unique graduation protocol your institution adheres to, and finally you shake hands with a high-ranking academic you’ve never met before and you nod off to a head-scratching spiel by someone who got awarded a PhD without ever even writing a thesis, even though they appear to deserve it more than you. Shake it off, though: you’re finally a Dr! Photos, pictures, smiles, more photos… and you’re ready to take your place next to those grand men and women who made science what it is today. All those sacrifices, all those lost parts of your life that you’ll never get back, well, they certainly feel like they were worth it.

Except that the world isn’t perfect. Except that passion, love and enthusiasm are not strong currencies in the scientific world. Sure, you should have them – you should literally jump up and down in your next postdoc interview – but, really, the trade-off is just placebo. Weeks – hopefully – or months later, you’re frantically scanning Naturejobs, Newscientistjobs, and every university’s “Vacancies” list; scrolling clicking, saving, copying, pasting. And amidst all that, a harsh truth, a truth that science can’t describe becomes clear: you know all those skills that you spent years developing? You know how you learned to culture cells better than you cook? You know how you learned Western blotting instead of driving? You know how you spent more time on Ensembl than Facebook? Well, open that PhD degree of yours and read between the lines:

“Welcome to the jungle.”

And here’s something strange about this particular jungle, something that distinguishes it from all the others: it’s glad to be a jungle – nay, it wants to be a jungle. And if you’re not quick enough, if you don’t have all those survival skills and abilities that scientific training never told you that you needed – let alone gave you – if you’re not career-minded and goal-oriented and task-delegating and team-playing and time-efficient and business-speaking, the jungle’s gonna eat you alive, boy; it’ll eat you alive and chew you up and spit you out and then emit a cheerful, satisfied and indifferent burp and use your bones to pick its teeth.

Of course, all you ever wanted was to do science. Do some good. Help others. But you’ve crossed the PhD bridge now and you’re on the other side. It’s a whole new degree and you can’t get a late start. Who cares what lab skills you have? A monkey can do blots. Enthusiasm? You’re “not grounded in reality”. Passion for the field? You’re boot-licking. Creativity? Go do paintings. Innovation? Don’t we all. Troubleshooting? We have manuals. Agreeable personality? Be a beautician. No, my friend, under this canopy there is one rule and one rule alone:

Publish or perish.

And everyone seems pretty happy with it. Except you.

So here you are. You’ve given up your field, your interest, your background. After a long period of 1:100 interviews:applications, you look back and, tired, you have to ask the question: if the reason you took this road was because you wanted to do science, what’ll happen when you no longer can do it? What’ll happen to all those lost weekends and times and the long nights in the lab and the sacrifices? What science skill can you summon that can help you say that, ultimately, they might have all been for nothing?

Science never loses.

It’s what you think while you’re working in the sales department of a fledgling biotech company.

It’s what you think when you’re 35 and don’t know if you’ll have a job in 6 months.

It’s what you think when half your working energy goes into running around lest anyone think you’re not too busy.

It’s what you think when the other half of your working energy goes into politics to get your name first or last on that next paper.

It’s what you think you find yourself too senior for one grant and too junior for another.

It’s what you think when you haven’t worn a lab coat in weeks or haven’t taken it off in months.

It’s what you think when you or someone else points out the stupidity and self-defeat of the whole system and you are obliged to say “that’s the way things are”.

It’s what you think when you finally stop and look back and go blind trying to find the joy and purpose of having been a scientist.

But of course, that’s just you being weak. It’s your story. Everyone else gets along fine.

Hush now.

Science doesn’t care.