In which I lurk on the fringes

If a laboratory is like a family, then some days I feel like the black sheep.

I don’t mean that I’m unpopular or causing problems – far from it. In my first two years in the lab, I spent a large part of my research time doing things that would help the boss or the group: ordering all the consumables and equipment, organizing events and clean-ups, aiding with recruiting and the budgets and (as we’d just moved into the institute) making the connections with other labs needed for that all important scrounge network. If a visitor showed up and the boss couldn’t be found, I’d be the one that would pick her up and drink teas with her in the common room until he had returned; if something needed doing, the administration and support staff quickly worked out that I was a surer bet than my boss for making things happen. I sent out all the cells and reagents requested of us by other labs, I dealt with the Material Transfer Agreements, I made sure the pipettes got calibrated and broken equipment fixed or replaced. I did this all without rancor: I was desperately happy to have returned to the bench in any capacity – to have found a lab that would take a chance on someone with my eyebrow-raising career back-story.

When our talented research assistant was hired, along with a few more enthusiastic and can-do colleagues, many of those burdens were taken from me, but in the meantime I was still spending most of my time carrying out high-throughput screening; first in fixed cells, and then those few months in Heidelberg doing it live. The saga drags on: I’m still finalizing the list of hits, cleaning up the annotation and, in the limited hours I can squeeze in, scrabbling to do the cell biology and biochemistry needed to elevate one of our shortlisted genes to showcase status – the fun stuff, but the effort feels so woefully superficial compared to how it could be if only I were allowed to specialize.

And as my fellowship slowly expires (23 months and counting), I am starting to feel a mounting sense of futility and fatalism. I am the only one in the lab, save for our research assistant, who doesn’t have a defined, hypothesis-driven project: how does X work? What is the function of the Y pathway in this model system? How does Z contribute to cancer, or cell polarity, or morphogenesis during development? As I search for interesting genes (“unbiased screen” might be a euphemism for “aimless trawling”), even the rotating students and the summer students have more focus – and payoff. It really hit home the last few times I heard my boss give a seminar. The talks were different in content every time, but the striking thing was that I have never once been featured in them – though the names of colleagues who joined the lab long after me are now starting to feature in the fabric of the lab’s research narrative. And that is because nothing I have done to date has been interesting biology.

Some days, me and my robots and my 20,000 tiffs and 2 terabytes of live-cell imaging movies feel like a circus sideshow. I can hear the music and laughter in the main arena, but can’t quite work out how to get inside out of the cold.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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56 Responses to In which I lurk on the fringes

  1. Richard Wintle says:

    Sigh. Lab-induced ennui. Reminds me of a quotation I like from a certain author of a science-y bent:
    If the joys of science are gone, as far as I’m concerned it’s time to pack it in. Because otherwise all you’ve got left is the despair.
    [heavy sigh]

  2. Henry Gee says:

    Oh dear – poor Jenny …
    I don’t mean that I’m unpopular or causing problems
    Story of my life, squire.

  3. Jennifer Rohn says:

    ‘Ennui’ isn’t the right word at all. I love what I do – every minute. I love the manipulations and the protocols and the analysis, and I will desperately miss it if I don’t make the cut in two years’ time. It’s rather the sense that what I’m doing isn’t, yet, mattering. I want to matter – I want my data to be part of the bigger story. I’ve been in a number of labs by now and this is the first time that I’ve ever been so isolated, project-wise. One of my genes might pan out – be significant. But there are no guarantees.
    Thanks, Henry. Just had a little cry and feel slightly better as a result.

  4. Henry Gee says:

    Dr Gee, Agony Girrafe Uncle to the Stars, looks at your first paragraph and humbly suggests that in happily doing all these chores for people, you’ve allowed yourself to get taken for granted ….?

  5. Richard P. Grant says:

    bq. It really hit home the last few times I heard my boss give a seminar.
    oh man, do I know that feeling.
    Screens are a pain. There is so much there, something has got to fall out—but it can seem like the longest time. I never did get anything out of my splicing arrays, but at least you have the tools—and you are seeing reproducible changes, aren’t you?

  6. Stephen Curry says:

    Painful, though I think many research programs go through apparent deserts like that from time to time. I very much hope that you can pull out a few glistening nuggets to set your eyes shining…

  7. Richard P. Grant says:

    Yeah, I think Jenny will get her just deserts too.

  8. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Henry, it was sort of part of the deal of being allowed to join the lab under such unusual circumstances of career re-entry. Again, I was happy to do it. In the past few months I have started to resist any incursions on my time that don’t directly benefit me.
    Stephen, I think something will happen eventually, once this monster paper is off my desk. I haven’t lost all hope.

  9. Austin Elliott says:

    Of course, as a fall-back there might be a job somewhere that is 66% helping other people get all this stuff to work and 33% doing one’s own thing, or some version thereof. Certainly in the US (unless things have changed a lot), and even here one hears of such deals in research institutes and even Univ Faculties. “Core facilities” are still quite big, aren’t they..? Certainly are where I am.
    Probably not what you dream of, I guess, but I have seen some people make it work…

  10. Eva Amsen says:

    But at least you’ve done a screen. I spent three years fighting with cells ad machines to find out that what I wanted to look at just wasn’t feasible as a screen. And then I was put on emergency help on someone else’s project: he did do a screen, and got so many results that he couldn’t analyze them all alone. Blagh. Other people’s screens 🙁
    It will be fine!

  11. Benoit Bruneau says:

    Re: first paragraph: I agree with Henry, all this good will is great and more often than not goes unnoticed and underappreciated. I have great people like this in the lab, and while I appreciate their efforts, it is clear to me that a portion of the lab just takes them for granted (or, worse, gets irritated that these industrious folks are forcing them to be gasp organized).
    Re: rest of post: yeah it would be nice to be able to talk about all the things going on in one’s lab, and I’m dying to talk about some of the projects that I’m excited about but that just haven’t made it to a conclusion yet. And the worst of those are the screens, since you don’t even have anything to talk about until the screen is done and something concrete falls out of the mess of data. So don’t feel bad (esp since, as Eva says, you actually have a functional screen!), I bet your work will be the highlight of your PIs presentations in the (near?) future.

  12. Richard Wintle says:

    Two Three things:
    1) Many very exciting discoveries have come out of genetic screens. Ask Jack Szostak. Or Sydney Brenner. Keep pluggin’ away at it.
    2) Obviously I don’t know what ennui means.
    3) Fabulous virtual prize to anyone who can guess who the author of that quote is.

  13. Darren Saunders says:

    Jenny, I spent 3 years feeling exactly that way, and in a very similar position/predicament. Now, having done all the slog work cloning libraries and figuring out the conditions and analysis pipeline for my screen, and just as I’m leaving, things are getting really, really interesting.
    Frustration is not the word.
    Anyway, hang in there. I think it takes while “soaking” in all your screen data for the really interesting biology to reveal itself. I think you’d hear a similar story from the 2 other people here doing big screens.

  14. Cath Ennis says:

    Darren, funnily enough I almost left my own comment telling Jenny that I know “a couple of people” in the same situation, meaning you and other people from our lab… thanks for providing your perspective in person!
    I hope tomorrow’s pint(s) can take the edge off the frustration, if only for one evening. Your hard work is going to pay off in a big way pretty soon, from what I hear – and Jenny, I’m sure the same goes for you too. Hang in there!

  15. Richard P. Grant says:

    I know the source of the quote, Richard: and I don’t really think that’s what Jenny is saying here.

  16. Jennifer Rohn says:

    You’re right, Richard.
    Darren, I guess my take on things is that we have to learn from everything that happens to us. Now I know that screens aren’t my sort of thing – except, perhaps, a small restricted one with a quantitatively defined endpoint. This was a good thing to realize. (Ironically, the lesson is already being heeded by everyone else in the lab, having witnessed my journey thus far). This is, I think, a good thing, although it might be a bit tragic if I have no opportunity in future to choose to avoid screening.
    Yesterday was a bit trying: our institute just bought the Opera high-throughput screening image-analysis system and, after some of my labmates reported back from the training session, it looks as if my entire Heidelberg stint could probably be reproduced – to higher resolution – in a few weeks with minimal effort. Being replaced by a robot, indeed.

  17. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Austin, I think I could be happy in a 40/60 core type role. I will keep my eyes open, obviously.

  18. Richard P. Grant says:

    bq. Ironically, the lesson is already being heeded by everyone else in the lab, having witnessed my journey thus far)
    Yeah. I decided that if I couldn’t be a good example I may as well serve as a terrible warning.
    The Opera story sounds like another blog post (hint).

  19. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Can one blog about the Opera without being accused of product placement?
    So, wintle, you reckon Sulston had days like these too? 🙂

  20. Richard P. Grant says:

    I don’t see why not, Jenny. I mean you could call it “fancy new machine costing half a million quid” but Fnmchamq is almost but not quite unpronounceable.

  21. Cameron Neylon says:

    There is something slightly depressing about the fact that all of that data, that could be the launch pad for dozens of projects isn’t perceived as value just because you don’t have a nice biological story to hang off it (yet). Can’t help but think that in any objective way the value of the data is more than any particular study in the way it could underpin and enable other research. Back to the problem of people not valuing data but only the paper again I guess.
    On another note I would add that if I were the notional PI of someone who had brought in their own money, largely built up and lead their own research project I probably wouldn’t be comfortable putting their work into my talks either. Particularly if it takes a somewhat different slant to the other work being done that I had got funded. I can imagine that a combination about not wanting to take credit, not quite having the story to fit it into, and not quite realising that not including it might be concerning as well could make it both a difficult subject to broach and a difficult thing to include. Which may not be relevant in your case, just saying it might be for positive reasons as well.

  22. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I agree with everything you say. First of all, people are using my data already – since they all have pet genes and they can go into my vast reference library and already see what the knockdown does and how it compares to other genes in the same pathway, my data is directly facilitating their projects. OK, this is slightly depressing as well as slightly satisfying.
    It’s true that notionally I’m the PI on my fellowship, but for all practical purposes I’m just a post-doc. I don’t blame the boss at all for not mentioning me – I don’t have anything concrete to show. I’m just saying it’s depressing to be in that situation, is all.

  23. Austin Elliott says:

    bq. “So…you reckon Sulston had days like these too?” 🙂
    Apropos of Sir John S, one of the more interesting things for me in reading his semi-autobio The Common Thread was that it revealed he hadn’t had to write any kind of funding proposal, ever, until he was nearly 40 – or even possibly the other side of 40 (my memory is not exact).
    Compared to what people have to do now, that seems to me to speak volumes about the amount of contemporary scientists’ time and effort that go into endless (mostly fruitless) grant-writing.

  24. Austin Elliott says:

    PS The book does however, reveal that JS definitely had days like yours, Jenny.
    One of the things I liked about The Common Thread is that it is genuinely honest about the randomness of scientists’ career choices and the ups and downs of research. Paul Nurse is another famous scientist who also stands out as giving people an accurate sense of these things, rather than the kind of Hollywood-ised narrative of “determined single minded progress to a great goal”.

  25. Richard Wintle says:

    Getting myself slightly back on-topic, your “aimless trawling” reference reminds me of the criticisms levelled at a couple of students I worked with while postdocing in the Dept. of Pharmacology here in Toronto. The lab was very molecular in nature, which was a bit foreign to most of the department to begin with (hard-core kinetics/binding/second-messenger-activation types for the most part). One student was doing a yeast two-hybrid screen (eek) and the other, phage display (double eek). Both were, at times, accused by various other commtittee and/or faculty members, of embarking on “fishing expeditions”.
    I think the main issue is not understanding the value of the work – yes it doesn’t fit the conventional definition of “hypothesis-driven”, but in some areas this is a Good Thing(TM). In genomics, we’ve spent years waiting for good technologies specifically to enable “hypothesis-free” research (genome-wide SNP microarrays, for example, or these fancy new whole-genome sequencing doodahs). One could argue that a simple cDNA library screen (harking back to the 80’s now, egad) falls in the same category. At the end of the day, it’s all discovery science isn’t it? And the “hypothesis-free” vs. “hypothesis driven” argument kind of falls apart when you get a “hit”. “Oh yeah, my hypothesis was that there are genes that contribute to phenotype x that can be identified by screen y” works perfectly well for me.
    Hm, maybe I’m not as on-topic as I thought.

  26. Richard Wintle says:

    P.S. I imagine Sir John did have “days like these”, yes. On the one occasion I met him, I didn’t think to ask.
    Hm, perhaps a blog post is in order… I did get to use his microscope for a week and a half at one time.

  27. Benoit Bruneau says:

    Wintle: “it’s all discovery science isn’t it? And the “hypothesis-free” vs. “hypothesis driven” argument kind of falls apart when you get a “hit”.” Bingo.
    My postdoc advisor used to say “when in doubt knock it out”…not much hypothesis there, but lots of interesting science came out of that approach.

  28. Austin Elliott says:

    Agreed. The problem has been hiring and grant cttes that insisted on “Biq Question Driven”.
    I had a friend and colleague who spent some years trying to devise a kind of “in cell fluorescent immuno-assay” type technique for using FRET to read out expression of native protein in real time in live cells. When he was trying to get hired into Faculty posts in the UK he would routinely get asked:

    “But what’s your QUESTION?”

    And when he said:

    “To get it working… it’ll be enabling and help to solve hundreds of different scientific problems”

    The next line would be:

    “Well, I can see that if we use your method to look at expression of my pet protein, it’ll do a lot for me. But what’ll that do for you?”

    Eventually my friend left Universities in disgust, first for Pharma and thence to start-up biotech.

  29. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I think I’m just old-fashioned. I really love lavishing a lot of attention on one discrete biological process. I was happy as a clam in a lab where my brief, on arrival, was to work out if protein X was phosphorylated and, if so, on which residue(s) and does phosphorylation affect its function. It took me four years and I had to do weird and wacky things like chromatographic phospho-amino acid analysis, and plow through millicuries of 32-P, but it was a beautiful narrative with a happy ending.
    Yes, there is a hypothesis in “there are genes that contribute to phenotype x that can be identified by screen y”, but for me it’s a less beautiful narrative.

  30. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Austin, maybe your friend can give me a job, 😉
    And thanks for the tip about Sulston’s book. I could use a little inspiration.

  31. Richard Wintle says:

    …begging the question, “is there a place for artistic sensibilities in discovery science -high-throughput screening- science”?
    Probably been asked and answered already on NN though. 😉

  32. Richard Wintle says:

    Ack. Jenny’s comment crossed with Jenny’s comment, or something. Mine was in response to Yes, there is a hypothesis in “there are genes that contribute to phenotype x that can be identified by screen y”, but for me it’s a less beautiful narrative.

  33. Kausik Datta says:

    I wish I could contribute something appropriately witty and meaningful to this discussion, Jennifer, that would cheer you up. But all I have would sound naive and blasé. I have been in that situation. I hope it works out well for you. Perhaps you can focus on one positive aspect that you have going for you – you are in your own country, in familiar surroundings. Not everyone has that privilege.
    Oh, and you can always have a brilliant career as a blogger/author should you choose to. You have all the smartz and skillz required. Not everyone is so fortunate either.

  34. Richard P. Grant says:

    you are in your own country, in familiar surroundings.
    only half true…

  35. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Can’t you tell by my spelling, Kausik? I’m a stranger in a strange land (an American in Britain). But it feels like home so that’s ok!
    One can’t really make a career as a blogger/author, alas. The former doesn’t pay anything and the latter, only minimally.
    Wintle, I think there might be some place for beauty in science. If I work out the secret I’ll be sure to share it!

  36. Kausik Datta says:

    My apologies, Jennifer! My eyes did not particularly notice anything remiss with the spellings. But, but… do you mean to say that there are no career authors? All I know I enjoyed your book immensely. So there.
    But then, I enjoy RPG’s writings also… Perhaps my acumen as a reader is not as sharp as I thought… Hmmm! *time for introspection

  37. Richard P. Grant says:


  38. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I heard an interesting factoid that there are only 400 authors in America who earn a decent living. Decent living = $40,000 a year, every year.
    No need to apologize – Yanks are flattered to be mistaken for Brits. Even more than we are when mistaken for Canadians.

  39. Cath Ennis says:


  40. Richard Wintle says:

    Bloody Australians. 😉

  41. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I’ve never been mistaken for an Antipodean, though several non-English speakers have asked me if I’m German.

  42. Henry Gee says:

    Jenny – This afternoon I was walking along the beach with one of my pets

    Sorry – wrong pet – I meant this pet …

    and felt something unfamiliar. The air was cool and fresh, but gentle and Spring-like. I’d forgotten what that felt like, and how refreshing it was, after the bitter winter we’ve been having.
    So naturally my thoughts turned to your post. Now, I don’t know a screen from an hole in the ground, but I have been a researcher, and am familiar with the sensation of working away for ages with nothing – apparently – to show for it. It could be that yo have to reach some threshold, after which the results will all click into place in some last-minute rush.

  43. Darren Saunders says:

    Bloody Australians. 😉
    Yeah, watch out for ’em

  44. Darren Saunders says:

    Jenny, your comment about facilitating other projects really resonates. All of a sudden the assay and library I’ve built is in high demand around here and I’m watching numerous folks use my system to get really cool data really quickly. I’m sure I’ll end up as an author somewhere on their cool papers, but not at the top of the list… which is where I need to be to keep the money coming.

  45. Darren Saunders says:

    We may not be much good at skiing (our main medal hope for the olympics is a naturalised Canadian) but we have a very big flag

  46. Cath Ennis says:

    …which I hope you are allowed to keep!

  47. Austin Elliott says:

    bq. “I’ve never been mistaken for an Antipodean, though several non-English speakers have asked me if I’m German”
    Heh. ‘Er Indoors, die aus Oberbayern stammt, often gets asked by hospital colleagues and patients if she is from South African or New Zealand.

  48. Richard P. Grant says:

    Can I post my Huntsman picture now? Can I, huh? Please?

  49. Jennifer Rohn says:

    As long as it doesn’t involve pigs and knives and insectoid sunglasses.
    Henry, that was a really sweet thing to say and it has given me heart. Today, actually, was a much better day in the lab. I met with the boss, solved a few problems, did lots of experiments – so many that at least a subset is bound to work – and otherwise felt optimistic about my lot. Especially when this came up on the iPod.
    Darren, it’s a killer, isn’t it? Always the bridesmaid and never the bride – I’ll probably make 5 minor coauthorships in the next few years alone.

  50. Grant Jacobs says:

    Just don’t mistake a Kiwi for an Australian! 🙂
    Loved your article in Biochemist e-volution by the way. (Plugged it a little in my latest post, actually!)
    If it helps any, I have some empathy for where you’re coming from. I work as an independent scientist / consultant and would love to have my skills put to better use in “proper” science. A lot of contract work is drudgery that no-one else really wants to do that you get little credit for. Frustrating when you’re trained as a computational (structural) biologist, but what I get for returning to this small country, perhaps!! Doubly frustrating as I have some great research projects I’d love to rip into.
    I know what you mean about hypothesis-driven work too. I blogged about that some time ago; I’m old-fashioned that way too, and this is coming from a computational biologist!
    Loose thought: is there scope for a small “pet” project on the side focusing on just one molecule, etc.?

  51. Richard P. Grant says:

    Grant, I’ve often thought about setting up a consulting company just for people like you (and me!) who like to do some science but can’t be arsed with running a lab and whatnot. We could fly you in—actually, no need for that in your field—you do the computational whizzkiddery to solve the structure, whatever; and then take the next job.
    Outsourcing* post-docs. For well-defined projects it’d be brilliant.
    (*Which reminds me I’ve been meaning to write a post on that.)

  52. Kyrsten Jensen says:

    This post is rather relevant to what I’ve been thinking about lately. I’m currently e-Mentoring a high school girl who wants to go into science. She asked me what the day to day work in the lab was like – was it boring? To which I said: “It’s as boring as you make it – there are aspects like making up buffers and solutions that can be boring, but these basics are needed for your experiments. I fully believe that a job that someone finds boring is a job that someone would find fascinating.” I’ve seen this over and over again. I loved the “boring work” in the lab that helped the lab to be organized – I was the person who was going through the -80 freezers to catalog everything we had in there, organizing the lab books into an electronic system – this certainly gained me no “hard data” but it made me feel useful on the days when the experiments just weren’t coming together. I’ve since learned that I’m not a lab person – I’m not one to spring back from things that aren’t working, especially when I’ve put my hardest work and longest hours into it. I need small tangible successes, which is why my current position suits me so well.

  53. Grant Jacobs says:

    Hi Richard,
    Knowing how I like travel and new places to explore, I’d *insist* on the plane tickets 🙂 (Just kidding.)
    Seriously, now… I do in fact offer off-site services, but it’s not something that I get asked for often.
    There is a point, though, that most projects benefit from face-to-face time, even if it’s via video conference. Might want to toss thoughts about that into your blog article? That said, I worked for one client for two years that I meet for only an hour face-to-face, so it can work that way too.

  54. Richard P. Grant says:

    That’s interesting data, Grant; thanks.
    And yeah, I can understand the drive to get out of New Zealand…

  55. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Thanks for your kind words, Grant, and for the plug on my piece.
    You remind me of one of the protagonists in my second novel, the renegade bioinformatician!

  56. Grant Jacobs says:

    That’s OK. I saw your name and having time only to read one article before writing my piece, I chose your article partly as I like your writing and partly as I wanted to read what you had to say about science on the big screen. Mind you, I had to read right to the end to get my reward. Not fair, not fair!! Good teaser strategy, though…
    Stephen will just have to live with me picking you over him 🙂
    Must check out 2012 sometime. I’m sure it’s trashy, but it’ll be nice to see science in a better light in the flicks. Now if I could only convince Peter Jackson’s crowd to have me write a sci-fi script… :-/
    _ You remind me of one of the protagonists in my second novel, the renegade bioinformatician!_
    Oh dear, now that worries me…
    Part of me wants to check out how my counterpart fared, but nervous about how you think he resembles me!
    Neither the local town library or the local university library have a copy. (Seeing the sci comm people haven’t got a copy, I ought to badger then into getting one.) I’d buy a copy, but can’t afford to buy much in the way of market-priced books at the moment. I’m pretty good at getting the library to pick up a copy, so I should get there eventually.