In which you can take the girl out of the lab…

I suppose most scientists have the problem of taking their work home with them. And by this I don’t mean the stacks of papers you need to read, or the manuscript you’re writing, or the grant application you’re still cobbling together one day before the deadline. No, I mean the tendency we scientists have of seeing everything through an experimental lens. For example, after a long day of thinking about finch beaks or the mating habits of barnacles or the separation of sex organs in plants, Darwin intensively experimented on his own children.

Case in point: I’ve just finished a lovely work of non-fiction by my friend, the psychologist and writer Charles Fernyhough, called The Baby in The Mirror. In it, he studies his first child from birth through to the end of her third year, charting developments in language, socializing and self-awareness. Some of these same questions were also of interest to Darwin when he put his son William Erasmus through his paces. Fernyhough’s observations are placed into context with reference to both historical and current thinking on how these processes are thought to come about. It’s a fascinating read – funny, sad, confessional – and deeply illuminating if your child, like mine, is right in the midst of acquiring language. And yes, Fernyhough and his fellow psychologist wife do describe subjecting their daughter to some of the classic childhood experiments. There are tests involving mirrors, and objects hidden in cups, and all sorts of other tasks designed to probe the innermost workings of the toddler brain.

I haven’t quite got to that point with Joshua – although I have noticed that he spends most of his time doing things that could easily be defined as experimentation. Indeed, Fernyhough in his book describes children as “little scientists”.

Bucket Scientist
Click to play the video in Flickr

But yes. My day-job lab habits die hard. And no more so than in my gardening. This year I started to keep a notebook to record what worked and what didn’t – seed varieties, sowing and planting-out dates, propagation and harvest information. I’m currently grappling with how to get my Melba melons to actually set fruit. The female flowers don’t seem to become fertilized by insects on their own, so each day (feeling like a furtive perv) I peel back yellow petals from the male flowers, exposing their stamens, and brush them delicately against the stigmata of the relatively rare female flowers. If I were Gregor Mendel, I’d have tied a piece of coloured string to each female flower and recorded subtle variations in application (apparently the lady bits are very fragile and hand-pollination often destroys them). Instead, I’m so disheveled with the necessities of getting a cranky toddler fed, bathed and bedded each night that I keep losing track of which flowers I’ve serviced each evening – so I’m none the wiser about the odd successful fruit set.

Cuke Notes

The gardening book – stained with manure and dirt and the pen running from off-course hose spray – lives in the big greenhouse where most of the most successful “experiments” are ongoing. I realized only today that – aside from being negligent about the details of my pollination efforts – I’ve been keeping the notes exactly as I would do in the lab. My lab notebook style tends to err on the side of lengthy prose, with plenty of sketches and irrelevant asides: rambling, untidy and emotional, sprinkled here with jubilation, there with despair (and the occasional four-letter embellishment). It’s been nearly a year since I’ve written in a real lab notebook: my team does the front-line experimentation now, while I supervise and, of course, write lots of grant applications in a bid to future-proof my group. The teaching duties are relentless, with year two material to prepare despite the end of term. And increasingly too, I’m being press-ganged into academic committees. I’m so grateful to finally be a real part of that club that I accept such invitations gracefully, only too aware of what a thin membrane lies between me and the abyss.

But I do wonder: am I redirecting all that pent-up, neglected and observational science directly into my gardening journal? Is it keeping me sane? I always hoped I’d be able to get back into some bench work once I’ve got secure funding and we’ve moved into our new home close to my teaching obligations. The reality around me, however, suggests that once you start to go the way of an office-bound lab head, it’s seldom a two-way street.

How do I feel about that? Surprisingly OK. If I’m perfectly honest, I don’t miss those three-hour marathon sessions in the tissue culture hood, seeding cells, pipetting tiny amount of clear liquid into 384-well plates, sweating miserably inside my nitrile gloves and white coat, longing for a blast of fresh air. I actually enjoy writing grants and papers, and chatting to my students about their work without having to do the hard graft myself. The thrill of discovery is still there – made possibly more exciting by the chance to frame it all in context, with persuasive paragraphs aimed at convincing others that the work deserves the funding to go further.

Meanwhile, I’ve got cucumbers to pick.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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2 Responses to In which you can take the girl out of the lab…

  1. cromercrox says:

    Children are indeed Little Scientists. Perhaps you should compile a list of infant experiments with appropriately academic titles. My first experiment would have been entitled something like ‘On the Tolerance of Small Garden Invertebrates to Total Immersion’. My experimental apparatus was the metal tray formed by the saddle of my upturned tricycle, which, because of the attendant mass of tricycle, was at a convenient height to perform experiments.

  2. Ha! I love this idea. More please.

    Joshua’s most pressing thesis at the moment might be entitled:
    “on the irrationality of parents: Psychological mechanism behind Mummy encouraging the decapitation of dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and buttercup (Ranunculus sp.) specimens but becoming strangely irate at the picking of any other species.”

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