Last Thursday was a normal day. After a few hours at my desk working on a grant application and a paper revision, I ran to the tube station, threw myself into a train down to the main campus, trudged a mile or so to a remote building near Russell Square and sat through a two-hour Faculty teaching committee meeting.
Back up north, feet considerably sorer, I ate half of my lunch at my desk while sorting out a lecture for next week, then had to abandon the rest of my food for a quick meeting with the department head, before greeting one of my funders who was coming for an lab visit and progress report.
After we’d said goodbyes, I saw I had about 20 minutes before I had to catch another train down to Bloomsbury, where one of my postdocs was delivering a research talk.
For the first time in I’m-not-sure-how-long, I poked my head into the big communal lab to see if any of my team were around. The benches of our domain were quiet, though with some evidence of recent experimental activity. Over in the bays of other research teams, several white-coated students and postdocs were hard at work, head down and focused. I saw at least one scientist I didn’t recognize – a new arrival whose existence I had failed to process?
At that moment, I was hit with a strong feeling – part memory, part melancholy – and was transported back to the past.
It was 2004. I was an editor for BioMed Central, visiting campuses around the world to meet with scientists and peddle this new-fangled ‘open access’ thing to the bewildered and skeptical community. BioMed Central had been doing its thing well before the launch of the Public Library for Science in America, and even then I really was evangelising a concept that almost no one had heard of, and few thought was a risk worth embracing.
Often during these trips, I’d walk past workspaces on my way to the bigwig’s office. Dark corridors, bright labs: the scenes within quickly glimpsed, iconic snapshots from another world. I can still remember being assaulted by the desolate feeling of no longer belonging, of being shut away from something I had dearly loved and had left only out of personal disaster and circumstantial necessity. It was probably during one of those trips that the seeds of the imperative of my return to the lab was planted.
And here I am, many years later, living the dream. But doing experiments is no longer really on the menu. And that niggle of sadness brought it all home.
It’s a normal part of the scientist life-cycle to drift further and further away from the bench. Most of the time it is a relief: I truly don’t miss those hours-long tissue culture marathons, or pipetting sessions, or killing myself with stress doing five experiments simultaneously. I don’t miss the constant failure. I like that, as the boss, at least someone in my team is showing me a positive result at any given time, that a number of papers are in play, mitigating the individual rejections; that, as a group, we are more or less moving constantly forward, even if some individuals are periodically hitting the usual barriers.
But I do miss the process. The working with my hands. The thousand tricks of the trade that I learned to perform without thinking. The thrill of an answer about to be revealed; the joy of a modest victory. The banter and culture and camaraderie of lab life. The sounds and smells and colors. The rituals.
The feel of the white coat as it settles comfortably over the shoulders, right where it belongs.