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Lab Rats

Confessions of a science bum

On an unconventional research style

Vicky Ware 20 March 2016

Tapping in: find your own way to work

The job is just that; a job. It isn’t changing entire aspects of my life that I don’t want it to change

During my undergraduate years I thought I was destined to be a bum. That is, someone with no discernible career whose passions extend beyond their field of employment (read: working in a bike shop). Passions that in turn lead them to spend as little time and, if possible, negative energy as possible doing said work. I even used to take naps in the changing room.


I couldn’t cope with being in one place for more than about three weeks. I’m a location commita-phobe. Even the idea of being tied down to one place sparks a prickle of apprehension, soon leading to full-blown panic if the prospect becomes a proposition. And if it becomes a reality? I’m out of there faster than you can say ‘pipette this tray for me’.

The weird thing is, I’m not averse to other kinds of commitment. Long-term relationship? No problems. Well, maybe some, but that’s a blog post for a different website. Committing to train as an athlete for a decade? Sign me up! I just can’t seem to get my head around being tied to one location.

“It’s sad,” I’d sigh, sipping my eighteenth cup of tea that evening, “But science is just never going to get the benefit of my extraordinary brain. My outstanding outlook. My ability to challenge the status quo (read: go cycling rather than go to lectures). They’re just all going to be untapped by the human race!”

My flatmates seemed annoyingly unperturbed by this revelation.

Happily, it turns out that science is going to get the benefit of my input, even if that input only results in increasingly terse emails from my supervisor pointing out that he’s already explained how to do what I’m asking six weeks ago, with a link to the forum post where he did it.

Arguably, and believe me my Mum has argued with her friends at length, I am kind of still a bum – well, at least from the outside.

“Sitting around on her laptop, doesn’t seem to have a proper job at all! How is she doing it?! Is that bum boyfriend of hers a millionaire?”

Again; no, and the presumption that a man would be paying for my lifestyle is also, trust me, the subject of another blog post.

Currently, I’m a distance-learning student using computational chemistry to do a drug discovery project. My laptop is my lab. Thanks to the input of many people before me who have spent their lives coding algorithms that make a computer tell me what proteins would do in real life (or attempt to…again, another post), I can do science wherever I please.

Science has happened on my lap on the sofa at my Mum’s house. It’s happened in the back of the van I sometimes live in (definite bum criteria being met there). It’s happened up mountains, next to lakes and more importantly, it’s happened at the time of day I want it to happen and in the location I want it to happen in. It’s consensual science.

The thing is, I’m better this way – I’m actually a good student! I’m much more likely to burn the midnight oil if the project I’m doing needs it, because I’m happy with everything else to do with the job. The job is just that; a job. It isn’t changing entire aspects of my life that I don’t want it to change; where I live, how often I get to visit family, whether I’m going to be able to make it for my best friends’ babies’ christening. Okay, so none of my best friends has babies, or would be likely to get them christened. But that’s not the point.

But what is the point? I don’t fully understand myself. It’s likely food for a psychiatrist with extensive knowledge of my upbringing and underlying issues, rather than for me. All I know is I’ve found a way to continue bringing my outstanding* input into the world of science without being in an actual lab.

Next on the agenda: adventures in finding an actual job in science involving remote computation chemistry. Any employers reading this?

*acceptably average