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Lab Rats

You are $540

On the price-tagging of a human scientist

Theresia Mina 7 September 2011

Handout: research can be ludicrously cheap

I am sure a prostitute is worth more for a night than me

“Is that negotiable?”


Gulp. Gurgle. Nervous grin.

For the privilege of working as slave labor for four months on a summer thesis project, I realized that my recent graduation would position me as an employee who is paid $540 per month. My stomach groaned and my armpits trickled.

Several hours later after enough time had passed for proper contemplation, I understood why the Human Resources room had seemed suddenly too hot. After all, I had just been price-tagged as a $540-per-month human – and worse, I almost believed it. I am sure a prostitute is worth more for a night than me. I am certain that the old lady in the train station who sells tissues to survive earns slightly more than me. I even think that dishwashers in fast food restaurants, who are employed only because automatic dishwashers are still too unaffordable in this country, earn more. In my head, Oprah was shouting, “Baby, you ain’t a prostitute, and you’re sure as hell not selling tissue paper or washing plates!”

After I was price-tagged, I attended a prestigious annual general meeting of The Stem Cell Society. As I sat there listening to a speaker from a faraway country, it should have been an honor to be there. I should also have been honored to understand his English talk about culture-adapted stem cells, and I should have been honored to draw up sophisticated questions in my head that I would have asked if only I were not too busy pondering my price tag while my Harvard-graduate-mate kept stealing my pen and raising his hand like Hermione Granger. When the speaker tried to make some clever analogy about experimental data using Winnie the Pooh, I was quietly pooh-ing and questioning my dignity.

“Is that negotiable?”

Renting an apartment would be more than $400, public transport costs $90, the food expenses are another $100, provided that I bring my own plastic Tupperware, my own chopsticks, become vegetarian, drink free energy drink in the lab, free water, stock up on bread as a substitute for rice, and refrain from any form of entertainment other than YouTube thanks to the free internet in the lab. Long live pirated movies, a high-five for hand-me-downs and a toast for nearly-expired items in the supermarket! My mother, whose house I have promised to help rebuild since the last flood in my hometown, would have cried silently.


You are worth $540: it is what you should believe, it has been more than generous, you ugly child. What else were you expecting for a migrant-scholar like you, who only crowds our little island? Do you think you can publish in Nature? Not even a letter to the editor.

In a life of Taoism there is Yin and Yang. I received a conditional offer of a PhD studentship from Cambridge, yet still I am worth $540 for a summer internship. Last summer I was paid more than 3000 Swiss francs for ten weeks for a summer program in an institute which chose me based only on my CV and personal statement.

In Buddhaism we believe in karma.

Probably I would be entitled to the bread “goody-bag” – the food packages which aid workers in my part of the world distribute to the less fortunate or to victims of natural disasters. Bread is the breath of life during famine. By famine I refer to the great depression of messing up my 384-well Q-PCR experiment when the pipette trembles and my eyes are blurred with hunger.

“Unfortunately, migrants are not supposed to have a voice, but we love hard-working ants like you, so no. You can’t have a goody-bag either.”