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Lab Rats

Alphabet soup

On the acronyms that clog up corporate science

Stella Hill 9 April 2012

Belles-lettres: jargon is an art

Maybe a third of the way into the presentation, you realize that you don’t actually understand what the speaker is saying

Every niche in life has its own jargon, or ‘sociolect’: a language used by people who work in a specific area or trade, or simply have a common interest, like gaming. It makes things easier most of the time, using shortcut terms for standard concepts without needing to explain the specifics. However, it also makes the group using this jargon ‘special’, since they speak something others do not necessarily understand. It’s inclusive to the group, and exclusive to others, although not all of the time on purpose.

If you are in science, you probably remember that first seminar you attended in your new area – the PowerPoint slides that flashed up on the screen, and you, anxious to absorb the new information and digest it. And then, maybe a third of the way into the presentation, you realize that you don’t actually understand what the speaker is saying, or even the text written on the slides for that matter: NfKb, CLR, small boxes with arrows labeled as “DNA feedback loop”; other abbreviations that overwhelm you. You try to listen and get it, maybe at least work out a rough idea of the big picture by studying the accompanying cartoons: “box 1 affects box 2 which in turn will move on top of box 4 – which is hampered by box 3”. And you think, “I’ll look the specifics up later, back at my computer, try to find a paper where all those letters are spelled out and explained”. You’re not completely clueless for the rest of the talk, but you’re pretty close.

Scroll back a bit more in time to that talk you went to as an undergraduate when you realized that there were many people in the room having a conversation but you really didn’t get it. Again, it was all about the fancy abbreviations and gene names, but you learned and were so happy during the exam when you could finally show that you too could master and make words and coherent sentences with these seemingly random clusters of letters.

It’s a bit like learning a new language. At first, it’s really hard to understand anything. Later you can get the overall idea, but there are occasional words popping up that you can’t understand. You can tell whether it’s a verb, noun or adjective, and maybe even make it work in a sentence, but you don’t know exactly what it means.

In talks, you can get help from the pictures in the slides. But if you work in corporate industrial science, like I do, you’re on your own. Industrial science is infested with acronyms populating everyday emails and meeting notes, but which also leak out into the outside world. If you have seen an advertisement for positions within industry or pharma lately you will know what I’m talking about. Try this one out: “We’re looking for a scientist with CFR21 experience. Furthermore, GMP/GLP experience is required. CAPA and SOP writing are also essential, while QA/QC compliance, FDA approval and pre-IND work are highly desirable.” The first time I saw one of these, I wondered if I had stumbled into an old-school radiotelegraph communication Q-code, where ‘QRL’ (“Are you busy?”) would be answered with something intelligent like “QC-QA-CFR-SAE-EM-HCT/P-IRB-cGMP-GLP”.

But lately it’s become clear to me not only have I adapted to this new language pretty quickly, but I am now fairly comfortable swinging those acronyms around myself – even to the point that I forget to omit them when talking to normal people. When you start working in an industrial science setting, the language gets drilled into you within the first couple of months, reading and implementing all the SOP – that’s Standard Operating Protocols to you – that one might encounter in a new lab. It is also one of the first things people ask me about in my mentoring/invited speaker discussions. I realize, every time I chat to newbies or glance through job advertisements, that there actually is no “standard lexicon” for these kinds of things. It depends too much on your specific subfield. As a microbiologist, for example, I was thrown off by the term ‘SA’ the first time I ran across it in my new area. It’s not Staphylococcus aureus as I first thought, but rather ‘select agent’ (i.e. microbes that you’d use under Biosafety Level 3 conditions). That could have led to a pretty serious misunderstanding, with an alphabet soup far more toxic than had been intended.

I also harbour a sneaking suspicion that the jargon also serves as a selection agent for HR when looking for new employees. After all, you’d rather hire someone who already speaks the same language, right? Because of this, I often end up getting approached by a graduate student or post-doc who really wants to “move into industry” but does not really know what the job entails, what the advert is asking for or what HR really means. I do my best, but even I can’t always work them all out. See the appendix at the end of this article for a few of the most common examples.

I guess my penchant for dark humour shows when I’m writing a heavily jargoned industrial document and succumb to the temptation to throw in some acronyms from my time in academic science – a sprinkling of qPCR, SDS-PAGE and HPL – which isn’t actually that helpful since I know that they will be meaningless to the non-scientists responsible for making sure my documents are up to par with the CRF21 compliance. A bit of revenge? Or maybe I’m just feeling a little too much like a confused polyglot at times, wanting desperately to show that I’ve tasted more than one kind of alphabet soup.

CFR21 - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 (USA)
GMP - Good Manufacturing Practice
GLP - Good Laboratory Practice
CAPA - Corrective Action and Preventive Action
SOP - Standard Operating Protocol (Procedures)
QC - Quality Control
QA - Quality Assurance
FDA - Federal Drug Administration (USA)
IND - Investigational New Drug
SAE - Serious Adverse Event
EM - Environmental Monitoring
HCT/P - Human Cell and Tissue Product
IRB - Internal Review Board
cGMP - current Good Manufacturing Practice
CRF - Case Report Form
qPCR - quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction
SDS-PAGE - sodium dodecyl sulfate polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (or just a “protein separation gel”)
HPLC - High-Performance Liquid Chromatography