Is there a strong correlation between the number of hours you are physically present in a lab and the pace and success of your project?
The furore over Nature’s 24/7 lab feature, published a few weeks ago, is still sending out the occasional ripple. In case you missed it, the 31 August issue of the journal featured three pieces: a beautifully written account of Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa’s high-powered, workaholic lab at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore by journalist Heidi Ledford; the opposing viewpoint for the importance of work/life balance, presented in the first person by Julie Overbaugh, a successful group leader at the Fred Hutchison in Seattle; and an editorial, which seemed, on balance, to come down largely in favor of the turbo-gunner approach. Indeed, it finishes with the rather ominous observation: “As research funding declines in many countries, science will intensify. Anyone lacking the inner intellectual drive and a capacity for relentless focus to get to the heart of the way the world works should stay away.”
All of you have probably known about labs like Quiñones-Hinojosa’s – especially if you’ve spent time in any prestigious research hub in America. And some of you may have lived the 24/7 lab lifestyle yourself at some point in your career.
I, personally, have been there. But rather ironically, my 24/7 epoch – which stretched over the five and half years I was a PhD student in Seattle – happened in the lab of the aforementioned Julie Overbaugh herself. Hers was a relatively new lab at the time, and I ended up being the first PhD student to graduate from her group. My work ethic wasn’t precisely 24/7, but I would routinely work 12-14 hour days on the weekdays, and 8-10 each weekend day: never fewer than 80 hours a week, and sometimes approaching 90 or 100. This was the epoch in which I single-handedly cloned and sequenced more than a megabase of DNA, the old-fashioned manual way, with radioactive sulfur and hand-poured gels, and typed the results in manually at the computer each morning until the G, C, A, and T keys were visibly worn.
You could find me in the lab at six in the morning, or at midnight, or putting in a few hours on Christmas day. I once set off the intruder alert alarm in the Regional Primate Center after coming in from clubbing to check on some cell cultures at 3 AM – the goth clothes I was wearing at the time didn’t seem to reassure the security guard that I was actually an authorized PhD student. I’d ride those long hours on an adrenalin-fuelled buzz that only a 20-something year old kid could carry off for long periods of time, buffered through the failures by sporadic bright sparks of promising data and a constant stream of incredibly loud grunge or indie music.
It is important to stress that all of this behavior was entirely self-imposed. Julie worked normal hours and repeatedly stressed that we – the Overbabes, as we called ourselves back then – could all do as we liked. Some in her lab worked normal hours, and some worked longer. I think we were all a little scared of Julie: someone who applies no pressure is a pressure of its own. But I think the fact that it wasn’t imposed or expected is very important. Nobody has a right to treat a worker like a slave – something I think that some lab heads forget. “That’s how we did it in my day” is no justification.
If you look at my track record, you’ll see that my 24/7 PhD stint bought me four first-author papers, two first-author reviews and two co-authorships. Impressive, perhaps, until you factor in that I didn’t get my first paper out until my fourth year. In many projects, you have to labor for years to get a system up and running; the 24/7 thing isn’t necessarily going to strike gold during your typical post-doctoral short-term contract span. And with age, inevitably, comes the weakness of the flesh. Nowadays, I get tired, I get hungry; I can’t force myself to work the long hours I used to do with such ease. As I approach middle age, and life starts to feel finite, I find that spending time with my loved ones is more important than cranking out so many papers that I never get to see them.
And I think Julie is right about the creativity angle: I get scientific ideas when I’m running in the woods, or swimming laps, or lying sprawled on a sunny blanket in the weekend garden staring at the clouds. Sometimes in the lab or at my computer, I feel a block that won’t ease until I step away from the problem. I abandoned the 24/7 ethic completely from my second post-doc onwards (I’m on only about 50-60 hours now, if you include the time I spend writing papers and reading the literature at home), but my publication record remains as strong as it was at the outset, and some of the work I’m most proud of happened in a 9-to-5 industry culture.
Personally, although I’m glad Nature gave someone like Julie a platform to voice an opinion that many of us feel is obvious, I’m a little bit disappointed that its editorial team decided to side with the sweatshop mentality. Judging by the comment threads on the three pieces, most readers were equally disappointed. Quantity is seldom quality in science, and there are many different styles and diverse approaches in the quest for knowledge. The sleep-in-the-lab scientific stereotype is getting a little stale. As a community, shouldn’t we be moving beyond all that?