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Underneath my lab coat, I'm naked!

One woman argues that labs should be sexed up

Kat Arney 7 March 2005

www.lablit.com/article/6

Arney in the wild, dressed a bit more appropriately

It’s time to stop pretending that scientists are creatures who only reproduce by budding.

Science. It’s just not very…sexy, is it? In my experience, spending days surrounded by phallic test tubes and rubber gloves, talking about replication and genetics, dampened rather than provoked the fires of laboratory lust. It’s not that the world of science renders researchers asexual. The existence of stray ankle-biters dragged into the lab at the weekend while mummy or daddy does a few experiments is proof that at least some of our number have completed the advanced course in reproductive biology. The reason is this: whilst gathering some of the finest minds in history, our noblest pursuit has somewhat let the side down in terms of totty. It’s not science that’s the problem – it’s scientists.

To put it bluntly (and I include myself in this equation), science may be noble but it is certainly not glamorous. After six months working in an office environment, I can safely say that the sight of a well-groomed man in a good suit definitely gives the day a certain frisson of excitement. Just the merest hint of a pair of silver cufflinks can send my knickers plummeting to the floor faster than a beaker from the hands of a first year grad student. Forget all the media clichés about balding boffins with leather elbow-patches – it’s just that the reality isn’t much better.

In my career as a bench scientist, I have had the pleasure of meeting some absolutely lovely men. Intelligent, witty, and a dab hand with a pipette. But they were, almost without exception, complete scruff-pots. Come on, guys – free promotional T-shirts from biotech supply companies and the odour of mercaptoethanol are not the way to a lady’s heart! And, to be honest, us girls are no better. What’s the point of wearing nice tops when you’re bound to spill some indelible chemical down them? Or wearing mascara only to leave it smeared on the lenses of a microscope? I’m also not convinced that high heels conform to health and safety standards either. It’s not for nothing that glamorous female scientists are regarded with high suspicion – have you ever tried to stay looking smart after a hard day’s graft at the lab bench?

You may argue that focusing on external appearance is shallow and meaningless, and you may well be right, but it certainly makes the hours at work pass faster. I suggest that all research institutions across the globe start a vigorous policy of "dress-up Friday", when scientists can pretend they have a normal job. My proposal is simple: on Fridays you wear smart clothes, have a long lunch and leave at 4 PM to go to the pub. If that doesn’t get the sap rising up the ivory tower, then I don’t know what will.

However, even the judicious application of lipstick cannot save you if you’re working in the wrong field. Your chances of finding flirtation among the formulae can vary hugely between academic disciplines. The biological sciences are highly enriched in female specimens, and most of them are young and unmarried – mainly because marriage and babies still seems to be incompatible with a career in research. As a bonus, all the talk of genes and physiology can lead to some good chat-up lines. For example, I did once ask a yeast geneticist to show me his ARS…

Physics, as one might expect, has a chronic superfluity of men. This is probably down to the fact that physics experiments involve really cool bits of kit. After all, what is a particle accelerator if not some kind of highly expensive, shiny über-gadget? But sheer weight of numbers does not ensure quality. My few girly physicist friends assure me that although the odds are good, the goods are most certainly odd. However, if you are one of the few women in physics, you can at least be assured of flattery – although this is not always a good thing. For example, a friend of a friend went to a physics conference during his PhD, and one of the speakers was a rather attractive young lady. Once she’d finished presenting her data, the chair got up and announced that he’d like to "Spank the theaker".

Ironically, the sexual chemistry of…ummm…chemistry remains a closed book to me. I’ve never really met any male chemists, let alone had a chance to start an exothermic reaction with one. This means one of two things – either chemists get even less action than the rest of the scientific world. Or they’re all having such a good time with each other that they never come out of their sulphuric dominions.

It’s time to stop pretending that scientists are creatures who only reproduce by budding. Science needs to get a whole lot more biological, chemical and physical – if you know what I mean. It's Spring, so drop that pipette and get more exciting reactions going.

Related links

More great Arney humor at Science's Next Wave here (may need a subscription)

Yet more Arney at The Naked Scientists here (freely available)