Lab Rats

Developing scientists

Getting from point A to B in the lab

Helen Pickersgill 21 December 2005

Before and after: Pickersgill with the finished product (Prof. Terry Allen)

For anyone who hasn’t seen inside a laboratory, it’s analogous to the chaos of Gordon Ramsey’s kitchen on a Saturday night minus the hats.

Developmental biologists have a fascinating job: essentially figuring out how we got to that screaming bundle of joy with ten fingers and ten toes by mixing together a round egg and a tadpole-shaped sperm. Later stages of development, namely into scientist with no chances of portioning away any funding, remain ill-explained. How do you develop into a mature, multi-tasking fanatical scientist from a naïve, wet-behind-the-ears biology undergrad?

Scientific development is shaped like a pyramid and is composed of a series of short-term contracts, starting with a PhD. This means that at the end of each contract, you can be assessed to ensure you have the right qualifications and skills, and – sometimes unfairly – the right bodily parts and buddies, to get your next job. The problem is that you are not allowed to stop at any stage on the way to the top – a bit like life. If we live long enough we’ll all end up old and wrinkly however hard we want to stay in our 20’s (which doesn’t stop me trying). Yet unlike life, the unfortunate consequence of the pyramid model is that not all biology graduates can end up a fully developed scientist even if they want to because there simply aren’t enough permanent jobs.

It’s a pity I wasn’t fully aware of this when I started. It should’ve been in the job description. "PhD position available at the University for an intelligent, motivated biology graduate who doesn’t mind abandoning all hopes for a secure future".

Most scientists get their first taste of an authentic lab environment during university. I remember my first time. I wasn’t at all prepared, having experienced only Biology class and the structure of an onion skin from a brief glimpse down a rather ancient-looking microscope. I felt a suitable mixture of fascination, awe and mild terror.

For anyone who hasn’t seen inside a laboratory, it’s analogous to the chaos of Gordon Ramsey’s kitchen on a Saturday night minus the hats, but you wouldn’t put anything near your mouth. There was a lot of equipment, all in constant motion, with real scientists absorbed in various activities, some looking quite dangerous (the scientists as well as the activities). I should have taken a closer look and noted the monotony and tension in their eyes. Too late now. It was the very beginning of my life as a scientist.

Stage one, we could call it birth or the end of the chance at a normal life, involves developing a sense of self. Beginners get issued with a sort of starter/survival pack consisting of safety glasses, lab coat, electronic timer and lab book, maybe a ruler if you’re lucky (although I’ve never measured anything in a lab, it does come in handy for rescuing tubes dropped behind the freezer). The first important discovery to be made is that everything will mysteriously disappear unless you mark all possessions external to your body with your name - rather like when you were at primary school. As some items have been passed down from generation to generation this may require a very thick marker to cover up an accumulation of twenty names starting with Derek, who was a student in 1968.

My most coveted lab possession is my calculator, which is required to tell me exactly how much of one substance to mix with another to perform pretty much any experiment. If you’re bored and slightly sadistic and want to freak out a biological scientist, hide their calculator and enjoy the resultant panic and failed attempts at long division. Mine is marked with my name, in regular and UV-sensitive ink, and I have considered buying one of those nifty whistling gadgets you use to find lost keys. Woe betides any individual caught beeping inappropriately.

Stage one in the development of a scientist also involves the creation and maintenance of personal space. New recruits will be allocated some freezer and fridge space (probably shared, maybe with Derek’s ancient remnants) to store chemicals and tubes containing predominantly failed experiments. If the space is not immediately filled it will be deemed communal and utilised for storage of somebody else’s failed experiments, of which there is abundance. Stage one is a prerequisite for survival in a lab – but it cannot last forever. Stage 2 is developing independence. This occurs when the lab stops being a place of intrigue and instead takes on a familiar and slightly tired persona. The scientist is no longer a beginner and knows where everything is (or should be) and how most of the equipment works (or why it’s broken), and can continue uninterrupted doing experiments without having to rely on anybody. They are now independent. The caveat of this apparently joyous stage is that they should also start producing meaningful results which in reality can take years, especially if they experience technical difficulties, have an uncaring boss or have appropriated, fairly or not, a voodoo curse, which is surprisingly common in science.

Scientists in this stage normally appear withdrawn and some become manically depressed. Fortunately this stage cannot persist indefinitely. If you’re lucky, or find a good exorcist, experiments start to work and then suddenly you have an unlimited supply of lab helpers who are themselves languishing and want to share in your good fortune, and your boss stops locking his/her office door when you walk by. If you’re unlucky, then your contract ends and you have to consider alternative employment – not always a bad thing though.

Stage 3 is self presentation. This occurs when a scientist has produced enough work to present it (and themselves) to the international scientific community, be it at a conference, or by writing their results down and publishing them in a scientific journal. These practices should persist throughout the lifetime of a scientist (and if you’re really good, sometimes beyond) and is one of my favourite parts of science. But it can be a bit of a shock, after a long period of isolation, to suddenly be required to interact with other humans and explain what you’ve been doing and why. The ‘why’ is always something of a problem for me. Why indeed have I spent three years repeating one experiment? ‘What’ is much so easier to explain.

Somewhere around stages 2 and 3 some people develop paranoia, believing anything they say or do is under threat from those around them, be that stealing their ideas or sabotaging their experiments. And sometimes their fears are well founded – it’s not unheard of for work to be stolen. However, I steered well clear of this stage, partly because I don’t have any ideas worth stealing, but mainly because you gain much more from talking with people about science than just reading about it, and that should be encouraged. I have known people to put physical shields around their experiments labelled with serious threats should anybody, for some incomprehensible reason, decide to interfere. These people have developed abnormally and should be avoided.

It’s also not unheard of for results to be fabricated. The excuse is normally the intense pressure surrounding a scientist to produce staggering results in order to progress through this developmental process I am describing. This pressure can induce a subset to become over-familiar with manipulative graphics programs, to abandon moral standards and to become a disgrace to the profession. These pseudo-scientists have too many selfish genes. Don’t ever do it. Otherwise you’ll be thrown out of your current job and offered a Permanent Position (see below) somewhere else because your boss was too worried about his own reputation to tell anybody about it. But you’ll still have to live with the knowledge that you have vanquished many scientists to an eternity of stage two, trying to repeat something you made up and falsely published which they think must therefore be ‘real’. Shame on you.

One of the latter stages involves developing the ability to bullshit. This stage isn’t essential for becoming a top scientist but can be a useful tool for self promotion. And it’s not easy to recognise when you’re just a beginner and easily impressed. You only start to notice it after a few years, when you gain knowledge and develop your own opinions. I believe this stage originated because many scientists will not admit to any deficiency in the vast caverns of their knowledge. Useful advice I was thankful for was to ask as many questions as possible whilst a student, because later on it’s assumed that you know everything already. I haven’t developed the ability to bullshit because I can’t pull it off convincingly. Instead I’ve developed the ability to silently portray intelligence using facial expressions and gestures. It’s relatively effective. Plus I’m a blonde female. Enough said.

The final stage of development is the Permanent Position. Well, actually it’s less of a developmental stage, which by definition should occur as a pre-programmed event, and more akin to the quest of Frodo to destroy the Ring, in which you think he couldn’t possibly ever succeed in a million years and then he manages it by a series of freaky events too coincidental to occur outside the realms of Middle Earth. Fortunately for Frodo, his reward was restoring peace for all mankind, which made his quest worth it. The permanent position is a bit of a let-down considering the effort apportioned to attaining it. You do get more job security, but not very much more money. And the job you do is far removed from that in the other stages. You spend less time in the lab doing experiments, and more time sitting at a desk writing ideas down and begging people to give you money so you can hire somebody else to test them. And then you have to hope and pray that your idea was a good one so you can become well-respected and help shape science for the future, which all things aside, is probably the reason I chose science in the first place.

I do enjoy the constant influx of new students, with their bright eager faces and new ideas and their enthusiasm for a new life of experiments, and I remember how I once was. I always feel a sense of hopelessness and regret when they eventually become bitter and broken in stage 2, but it’s a temporary state and they’ve always got company. We were all there once and could easily be again. I look back now at my own scientific development and I’m quite pleased with my progress so far and the fairly successful scientist I’ve become.

If I was given the opportunity to start again though, I’d probably go back to university and study law.