Embedding the People in our Labs

Scientists are people, they have emotions and they interact with their peers, their students, their professors….and indeed the public. Sometimes, however, scientists are represented as interacting with little more than glassware or white lab coats. We can be perceived as living in a hermetically sealed bubble of our own construction occasionally churning out papers which are too abstract for others to appreciate, and are presumed to be always devoid of emotion. This representation is a travesty of what life as a scientist is like.

Perhaps it is for this reason that Hope Jahren’s book Lab Girl is being received so positively: she is open and frank about her life as a scientist. Her passion for the world of plants (ancient and modern) shines through, alongside the extraordinary lengths she has gone to in order to make her science count, the hours she has slaved away and the challenges she faced en route. Challenges which include bipolar disorder, dropped in half way through the book so lightly one could almost miss it, despite its extreme effects upon her from time to time. Sexism is only mentioned in passing, but lurks just beneath the surface. Chasing after grants is described much more explicitly, as is her excitement as she dreams up new experiments to test her hypotheses out. You don’t have to be a (paleo)botanist to appreciate her descriptions, which are wonderfully evocative.

However, this isn’t meant to be a book review. I have come across three already in my casual reading; there are bound to be more out of there if you look. First up was the New York Times  which gave it such a rave review I instantly went out and bought the book. Subsequently I came across both the Guardian’s write up by Helen Pearson and fellow OT blogger Jenny Rohn’s review in Nature.  All three are very positive, stressing different elements of this engaging and original book. However, I want to highlight a slight niggle I had when reading it, which comes back to my opening sentences.

Jahren writes movingly about her science, her passion (a word I use with caution for reasons I have described before) for it and about how it shapes her every day. She describes feelings and situations most scientists would recognize in their generalities, though the specifics may differ for every discipline and individual. For the non-scientists, who one hopes will read the book, our way of life may look extreme but that is part of the book’s power. But what is missing is the flesh and blood of the people around her. ‘Bill’ is a central character: her long-serving technician of many years’ standing features prominently. Yet he is a cypher, for all his name crops up with great frequency. The book is centred around Jahren; the others are mere shadows. Yet that is not how science is done. We thrive by discussion, by argument, by doing and listening. These are not lone activities. Science is not done in an interpersonal vacuum, yet when such a central character as Bill has little solidity (other than that he solidly, unquestioningly supports Jahren)and is painted so faintly, we can’t understand – or indeed convey –  the complexity of the reality of ‘doing’ science.

Following on from my last post, it seems to me that for all the revealing personal touches Jahren makes about herself, without the web of her collaborators taking shape the dialogue is incomplete. I wrote something similar when I described another plant scientist’s book: Seed to Seed by Nicholas Harberd. In this earlier post I noted the absence of his group of students as a source of ideas, inspiration or challenge. In other words, he too seemed to exist in a solipsistic world that I think is not an accurate reflection of how most of us proceed.

What I think makes both these otherwise illuminating and intriguing accounts of how scientists operate somewhat disappointing (and I suspect it is mere coincidence that both these books are written by individuals in similar disciplines, though asking very different questions) is that they can feed the view that scientists are egotistical folk for whom other people don’t really matter very much. The Frankenstein myth is alive and well and it is unfortunate if books that are in so many ways stimulating and refreshing nevertheless convey the message that other people either aren’t important or are only there to serve the master brain. A key role for a group leader to adopt is that of nurturing future talent. Not just take them to a conference and feed them pizza (as Jahren describes), but challenge them, stretch them, advise them and encourage them to enable the next generation to work out who they are. Our contribution can be as much about this nurturing as about our own high profile papers or the conferences we speak at.

Maybe it’s that I’m nosey, but having read Jahren’s book and been carried away by her wonderful prose and neat analogies, I wanted to know more about her helpmeet Bill and what made him tick. If reviews of a book about doing science are going to make it into mainstream papers, I want that book to represent the full richness of doing science. I don’t want it to feed the idea that we are lone geniuses whom lesser talents should be proud to serve. It is absolutely clear that Jahren does not think like this (as her appendix on how she approached the generation of some of the more mind-blowing numbers in the course of her teaching made clear), but the book lets the opportunity to spell this out slip. Let us not leave the humanity of what we do be left out; let us not feed the fears of so many of the public who think we are cold, unfeeling  machines who don’t care about the consequences of our actions. Collectively we aren’t like that, but perhaps we could do more to overcome such public anxieties.

I am convinced my own science is all the richer and better for the personal interactions I have had. I have tried to touch upon such human connections when I have written tributes to two of my own late mentors (Ed Kramer and Sir Sam Edwards).  If ever I write an autobiographical book – which is definitely not currently on my to-do list – it will need to encompass the web of people who have inspired me, driven me on (or driven me mad) because that is how science is done. Not in splendid isolation.

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