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.