A couple weeks ago I traveled to Purdue University to deliver 2 seminars. The first one, the “original invitation” was from the Dept. of Biology and was entitled “Lessons on the Biogenesis of Tubular Recycling Endosomes.” The second one, if I am not mistaken, was sponsored by the Dept. of History with involvement of the Departments of Literature, Communications and Jewish Studies, and was entitled “Lab Lit- the new genre of Laboratory Literature: do scientists and art mix like oil and water?”
My spouse’s paper mache version of a scientist.
Scientist-from the back. And YES, in case you were wondering, she takes personalized commissions for any event/gift, and can ship them without breaking! Tell ’em you saw it on Occam’s Typewriter…
In any event, it’s certainly not my notoriety as an author that led to this exciting opportunity; my friend and colleague, aware of my writing hobby, lent some of my books to a friend and colleague of his in the History Dept., and the rest is–as they say– (beware of another bad pun) History…
My arrival in Indianapolis (for transport out to West Lafayette, IN, where Purdue is located) did not bode well. When I turned on my iPhone as the plane landed, I was met with a ton of emails, text messages and phone messages asking about my safety–as an active shooter had just killed a student/teaching assistant on campus, and there was a lock-down. My host, being locked-down, had also called to warn about the likelihood of being late to pick me up. I have already spoken my mind on the issue of gun violence, so I won’t repeat myself in this blog.
It was cold in West Lafayette, but despite the tragic circumstances, my hosts were wonderful and I had a great time, scientifically, culturally and socially.
The Lab Lit forum was tremendous fun, and despite the university being officially closed for classes, was well attended with a full room of scientists, humanists, history, literature and communications experts. I presented a little Power Point feature on Lab Lit, emphasizing that science and art can be symbiotic, and there was an avid discussion that went on for about 1.5 h–until I needed to get over to another building for my science talk.
Here at the end, I will post a few of the slides that I used (as I promised to Jenny)–without, of course, my well orchestrated animations. But before I do so, I would like to bring up a really nice perspective that was articulated by my host from the Dept. of History, Dr. Ariel de la Fuente. In the course of the Q & A, there was a lot of talk about how one can manage to simultaneously deal with such apparently disparate enterprises such as science and art.
I admitted that the emotional involvement in running a research lab in today’s competitive environment does make it tough to take on longer term commitments, such as writing novels, but that at the same time, it’s often a breath of fresh air for me. I also noted that occasionally fellow scientists had raised eyebrows and gone so far as to query “Well if you can write cogently late at night, shouldn’t you be writing more grants and doing more science?”
Obviously, that misses the point, if one wants to consider that despite our absolute dedication to science, we are not scientific machines. And that to be really creative and do top-notch science, one needs to step back and look at the big picture–to view science from a fresh perspective. One of my tricks in writing science (and literature) is to write a grant proposal, and put it away for 10 days without reading it. It’s remarkable how much insight can be found as opposed to reading and rereading it twice a day.
Which brings me to the comment of Dr. de la Fuente, who in his wisdom pointed out the process of writing fiction–especially Lab Lit (as well as blogs about science and society) has additional value: it has an impact on me as a human being, as a leader of my lab, as a motivator and pseudo-psychologist. For which, of course, I have never had any formal training.
The point was well taken: science is not merely writing grants and papers. It is successfully motivating a group of students, post-docs, technologists, etc. It’s a lot more than that really, but in any case, the main idea is that the process of writing leads to self-reflection – a process which enriches me and therefore improves my suitability, credibility and viability as an effective principal investigator. I couldn’t agree more.