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Lab Rats

Experiences in lab culture

Meet the inmates

Christina Szalinski 17 March 2013

Bottled up: scientists in close quarters

Somewhere in the corner is a dusty piece of equipment that none of the current students will ever use, but that the boss keeps around to remind students of how difficult science used to be

An estimated one-tenth of 0.1 percent of the world’s population has committed themselves to a biomedical research facility.

The asylum of these individuals is ubiquitous. Visually unappealing scientific posters with unintelligible titles cover colorless hall walls. Walk through a door and see glass bottles of clear liquid with handwritten labels that would be helpful if they were legible. But penmanship is proven on centrifuges, rotators, heat blocks and pipettors that display bold notes in ALL CAPS regarding their use (DON’T BREAK IT) or ownership (MINE). At the end of every bench are piles of scribbled notes and warped papers that will be organized into a notebook, as soon as there is time. Somewhere in the corner is a dusty piece of equipment that none of the current students will ever use, but that the boss keeps around to remind students of how difficult science used to be.

The jargon of biomedical research is universal: ask anyone “what were the results of the western blot you ran from the cells you transduced with the vector you cloned?” and you will get an answer that sounds like “there was a stimulation upon expression but I need to repeat the assay with additional controls”. But despite these pervasive similarities, every lab group engenders a unique society that develops out of a workplace that is more intense than most involving people that are a little bit quirky.

In the lab, scientific microcosms remain in a delicate balance. Labmates often spend more time with each other than they do with their significant others. They are like roommates cohabitating together in (what other lab members hope is) a platonic relationship. Such a precocious relationship is always teetering on the brink of hostility. Due to a desire to preserve affability in the lab, scientists, like myself, are very wary of new lab members. There are three varieties of scary newcomers: the inexperienced, the crazy, and the unfortunate combination of both. Beginner scientists have an innate ability to find the flaws in your instructions in a way that completely delays your project: “You said to add that antibody from your collaborator in Japan, and I didn’t know how much to use so I added all of it.” The crazy lab member can generate enmity from anything: “That’s NOT how you pronounce apoptosis! How did someone so dimwitted end up in your position?” If your lab notebook is on fire and a newbie is screaming Nowhere in your stupid protocol does it say not to hold the instructions near the Bunsen burner! then you are experiencing the unfortunate crazy/inexperienced combination. But of course that person looked great to your boss on paper: “It says here that she’s very passionate about her work and she ran a western blot (once).”

An unverified source claims that 20 percent of scientists are crazy enough to disrupt the delicate lab culture, so if there are more than five members of a lab it is almost guaranteed that one of them will generate conflict. I have been very fortunate that my current work environment at the University of Pittsburgh has never been compromised. I have worked with thirteen people in four years and only one person (7.6 percent) had the potential to disrupt our good-tempered team. This statistically significant reduction of crazy in our lab is directly correlated (R= 0.92) to our boss’s brilliant Survivor strategy. With Bunsen burners glowing against the dark background, the current lab members have the opportunity to vote a crazy new trainee off our amiable island. Fortunately, just the threat of the Survivor strategy has been enough. Our boss informs trainees about this plot during their initial training period and it seems to scare off persons who would create turmoil. The one person we are stuck with is not actually one person, but rather small fractions of a few people, each with a little bit of crazy, which is manageable, resulting in a relatively pleasant workplace.

That little bit of crazy we harbor provides our mini-community with entertaining workdays. The international misunderstandings can be hilarious (outside of France, a tampon isn’t going to help you buffer a solution). I am generally amused when my coworker shares yet another online clip (although most of them can’t live up to the “Bad Project” music video). I love the awkward celebratory dances that occur in those rare moments when someone gets a positive result (imagine moves that resemble “Gangnam Style” without rhythm).

My favorite crazy thing about my lab is even when everything is going wrong, we can still find ways to have fun. When we don’t have time to flee from our confinement, we find things to laugh about. When we need to escape we find comfort in ingesting fantastic Indian food from the shabby food truck, lapping up local ice cream, or sucking down Margaritas at happy hour while we chat about our limited lives outside the lab. Our surroundings are the same as they would be anywhere in the world, but my troop of quirky coworkers in Pittsburgh make the day enjoyable. And when our genial group is potentially disrupted by the inevitable request, “Will you train the new student?”, I’ll take comfort in the probability (odds against are 4) that he or she will not be crazy.