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Lab Rats

The art of absence

Some things are more important than science

Ian Brooks 22 June 2010

Well-rounded: empty labs during the World Cup

Eventually there is just a perverse delight in pushing yourself beyond the limit. You make sure you’re seen in the corridors looking haggard and unshaven

When I was about eleven years old, I broke my arm. For the end of semester “Sports Day”, a teacher at my school had thought it was a brilliant idea for a classroom of gangly, uncoordinated pre-teens to run a backwards running race. Yes, you read that right – the teacher thought we should run the 50-yard dash backwards. Out of the ensuing tangle of young bodies, which looked, I am informed, like a giant human anemone made almost entirely of elbows and knees, I emerged with my first broken limb.

When I was about 13 I broke my arm again, I forget how now except that it was for doing something equally asinine. At 17, I broke it again, this time in five different places falling down the stairs of a youth hostel in Holland. This alarming and painful trend continues to this very day, only I’m proud to admit that I have branched out from just my arms and wrists and have since managed to break ribs, fingers, toes, my nose, my coccyx (a bike accident) and even my knee (a spectacular wipeout while snowboarding with a concussion). I am now more sanguine about the “curse”, and I know the next one is due in about 18 months. To be honest, after more than two decades of this I’m now curious what the fates will throw at me next. This orthopedically inclined preamble leads to another cyclically medical event, only this one is seen from the perspective of my mentors.

In 1998, I moved from the UK to the US to attend graduate school, and for five years my PhD advisor never suspected that my strange two-year cyclic bout of illness had a more...mendacious aspect. After completing my PhD I undertook a period of post-doctoral training, which is basically mandatory for anyone in my field. For more than five years I moved from city to city around the US undertaking advanced post-doctoral research training in various labs, and those mentors also had no suspicion that something else lurked behind my strange summertime bad luck, for I must confess that aside from the odd broken bone I have the fortitude of an ox and am very rarely ill.

But it is finally time to confess: this two-year cycle fits exactly the schedules of the UEFA European Football Championship and the FIFA World Cup of Football. (Each competition is played every four years, but the cycles are offset so as not to deprive addicts such as myself of our fix of patriotically inspired international football for more than two years at a time).

Every second summer during my PhD and post-doc training I would suddenly be stricken with random bouts of bronchitis (“Summer allergies, boss…cough, cough…I don’t know why it’s so bad this year!”). Or my car would develop sudden, albeit brief, engine trouble (“Sorry boss, looks like the bloody starter is playing up again. I can work from home today. I’m sure it’ll be working by tomorrow.”). Occasionally I had to use the ‘man-flu’ excuse to allay suspicion – after all, no one expects a twenty-something young man to make it to work every day. A hangover is a perfectly justifiable excuse when used sparingly. We all remember our salad days.

The beauty of working as a bench scientist is that with enough planning you can make your schedule accommodate almost any kind of activity for relatively short periods of time. Every scientist knows the tribulations of running and re-running enormous, multi-tasking experiments that drain the soul, exhaust the body and numb the mind. It’s one of the hardest “skills” to acquire in graduate school, and I don’t think you ever really get used to it. Eventually there is just a perverse delight in pushing yourself beyond the limit. You make sure you’re seen in the corridors looking haggard and unshaven. You email administrators and colleagues at ridiculous times of the night so they know you’re still in the lab, while they – clearly weaker than you – eat, sleep or spend time with their families.

The flipside of these long hours and nerve-stretching bouts of activity is the ability (which comes with long experience) to plan your life almost to the minute for days or weeks at a time. This is another way of dealing with the monotony of benchwork. When you have to repeat an experiment five times so that you can perform statistical analysis on the data, and you know that it is only going to work three out of every four or five times, you have to be able to deal with extended periods of repetition without losing focus. Especially when each attempt at the experiment could take three or four days (oh, the horror stories I could share…).

Knowing exactly when and where you need to be allows you to plan your “illness” perfectly to coincide with the next football match. Indeed, I pride myself on having seen every England football game since I moved to the US in 1998. I have to admit sometimes it has been easier than others. For example the 2002 World Cup was held in Japan and South Korea, and most live games were shown between midnight and dawn Eastern Standard Time. This meant I could watch the game, get some sleep and still be in the lab before 10am, which is about average for most graduate students.

This year the World Cup is in South Africa so games are shown at dawn, lunchtime and early afternoon Central Standard Time. This could pose a problem for some people, but as I’ve shown, not this enterprising scientist. When the schedule of games was announced several weeks ago my mind immediately sprang into action and began running through any recent absences I might have had. I carefully plotted the pattern of sudden migraines, flat tires and spontaneous attacks of bronchitis I would need to rely on for the month of June 11th—July 11th. You’ll note that man-flu is no longer on the list. Once one reaches one’s mid-thirties, work-cancelling hangovers are not tolerated as lightly as they were when one was a decade younger and less – ahem – ‘responsible’.

But, you’re probably saying to yourself now, “Dr. Brooks, you mad (and handsome and talented) headstrong fool! Why are you sharing these secrets with us now? What happens if your boss sees this!” But, you see, I had an epiphany during my illness-bad luck-scheduling. It doesn’t matter anymore because I am no longer a bench scientist. I changed jobs about 18 months ago and moved into academic administration and now as a staff member I finally get the benefits denied to most junior scientists in the US.

Not only did I get a rather significant pay rise, but I also accrue time off. So, if I want to take a few days off in the middle of the summer to watch England cruise to glory on the world stage, I can and really, no one can stop me “wasting” my vacation this way. And so far this guilt-free version hasn’t changed the taste of a nice cold beer on a workday afternoon, or diminished the excitement of the game either.