I’ve been pondering the impermanence of things lately.
Maybe it all started with the departure of a well-liked clinical researcher from our lab, an OB/GYN with a sense of the absurd who never failed to make us laugh. Now when we walk by his empty bench, it’s a reminder of the absence in our close-knit team – an absence so strong that it’s almost a presence.
The itinerant nature of the scientific profession is one of its major downsides. The ‘churn’ in a standard lab ranges from a few months to half a dozen years on average, so it’s very common to show up in a new research position and attend a leaving party not long afterwards. People are always coming and going, and the group composition is forever shifting in dynamics as personalities add themselves to, or depart from, the mix.
As a sociological experiment, it’s interesting to observe, but there is also an undercurrent of sadness to the relentless flux that has always dogged me. Even when a scientist colleague doesn’t leave the country – and that happens a lot – it still is difficult to retain the friendships that once seemed so immediate, forged as they were in the crucible of a relentless rush of experimentation. In my past, there have been late nights in the lab, joking with colleagues, when I thought I could never recapture a social environment that special. But once you leave, it all slides away. For the first few months, you might meet up for drinks with former labmates, but it’s seldom the same, and soon the lab you left behind has churned itself out of existence – there are new people, new dynamics, new shared memories that you are no longer part of. To them, you are just initials on a useful Eppendorf tube, or an author on a paper that came before them. And your new lab becomes your new family, closing ranks to exclude your past.
Experiments, too, are fleeting. It never ceases to amaze me how manipulations that can take on such importance in your mind one day can, by the next, morph into insignificance when their outcome is not good. Freezers and fridges are full of failed experiments that you can’t quite bring yourself to chuck away – for at the time, you invested so much meaning in them, so much hope.
Even my physical surroundings are not constant. In a few months, my university is selling off the satellite campus that’s been my home for the past year and a half, to be turned into luxury flats. While I welcome the move south to the main campus, it will inevitably cause a lot of disruption. We are being “decanted” (such a dreadful managerial term) into temporary accommodation for eighteen months, into an abandoned building that is currently heaped with junk and – apparently – teeming with asbestos, meaning certain rooms are completely off-limits. When we had the walk-through a few months ago, we were dismayed to find that my future lab space had a huge, ancient radioactive spill on the lino cordoned off with fading yellow tape – with no Geiger counter to hand, and no indication of the isotope in question, we had no idea how hot it still was. It will all be decontaminated and given a lick of paint, so hopefully it will end up perfectly habitable. But then there will be another move, to our final resting place in a newly refurbished building a few blocks away – more disruption, more impermanence.
As I left the lab this evening, the cherry blossoms were fluttering down and accumulating against the curbs like drifts of pink snow.
“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”
- Lao Tzu