In which I lift my finger from the ‘pause’ button

This past Friday, my interrupted career as a scientist resumed.

My first day in the lab came equipped with its own intrinsic shock absorber, coinciding as it did with the entire lab moving into a new institute – all of us newbies, on equal footing. But I was rather pleased to be the first to arrive, wandering the corridors and stairwells until I found the space, stacked with moving crates and still littered with the discarded reagents and unwanted equipment of its previous owners. I pulled up a stool and sat down to soak it all it: the empty lab, alive with possibility.

All change: the new lab moves in

The room’s history pressed down on me. The outgoing lab head was a well-known scientist, a tough act to follow and difficult to forget with the momentous surname scribbled over everything not bolted down. To judge by the silence, broken only by the hypnotic hum of fume hoods and refrigerators, I was probably the only person on the entire floor. This was it – I finally internalized that my odd career move was more or less irrevocable. At least for the foreseeable future.

And then one of the Ph.D. students arrived, followed by a post-doc, and another. The dreamlike humming was replaced with laughter and chatter: an entire lab to unpack and set to rights. We were all in it together, wondering where the cold room was, how to order notebooks, on which shelf to store this or that box. I began to accumulate new possessions: pipetting devices, pens, pipette tips, colored tape, a box of nitrile gloves, Eppendorf tubes, test-tube racks. The tools of my trade, still as familiar as my own body. I tried not to let anyone see me turning them over and over in my hands like precious artifacts as I set up my square-meter of bench space in the designated bay, negotiated with my neighbor about placement of gas burners and Vortex mixers. With no accumulated detritus of several years to unpack, like the others, I was put in charge of unloading and alphabetizing the lab chemicals, agarose to citrate to glutaraldehyde to potassium nitrate to sodium chloride to yeast extract, all lined up in neat rows. I had forgotten the way labs smell, acrid with the hundreds of substances only thinly contained. I had forgotten how many times you have to wash your hands, how an entire day can go by without actually sitting down.

Home is where you hang your Gilsons

So now I am a scientist again. How do I feel?

Strange. I lost track of how many times the new institute denizens asked me that routine question, So what lab did you come from? No straightforward way to reply, though I refined my spiel with practice, trying out this or that tack until the balance seemed right. I was amused at how many people seemed horrified: Why would you want to come back?, as if I were some prodigal representative from the World Beyond. (_The same reason you are here_, I yearned to reply but didn’t.) With only one day in the lab before the weekend, mostly spent arranging things, HR induction, touring the building, drinking cocktails with the rest of the institute, it all feels rather dreamlike now. Until I actually perform my first experiment, my occupation will probably retain this sense of being a bit hypothetical. Yet my editorial past feels equally unreal now, four years shed like a flimsy skin.

Where does this leave me? Wide-eyed, ready for whatever might come.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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27 Responses to In which I lift my finger from the ‘pause’ button

  1. Andrew Sun says:

    I may feel better if I further put every flask of something in order and tidy the desk a bit.

  2. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Never underestimate the power of a tidy bench/workspace, Andrew. Lab feng shui could be big business!

  3. Richard P. Grant says:

    Nothing beats the pleasure of brand new Benchkote. Well, nothing that you c an do in the lab, anyway. . .

  4. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Speak for yourself, Richard!
    Benchkote…one of thing things, unfortunately, that seemed to have been lost in the move. I found myself placing small apparatuses not for maximum space efficiency but rather to cover up unsightly stains. (Who was the smart cookie who thought white could possibly be a good color for a lab work surface?)

  5. Bronwen Dekker says:

    Am feeling really nostalgic now. There were so many things I liked about the lab:
    -setting up equipment (physically handling the materials)
    -planning a new experiment
    -chatting to colleagues during the incubation times
    -the euphoria when something finally works
    Hope that you have a lot of fun being a real scientist again.

  6. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Thanks, Bronwen. The first challenge will be getting the tissue culture up and running. And more generally, moving into a new lab is bit overwhelming – so much stuff and no clear idea yet where everything should go! I am really looking forward to doing my first experiment but it may not be until next week at this rate…

  7. Richard P. Grant says:

    I would only, ever speak for myself, Jen grin.
    If you need any cell culture advice and are too embarrassed to ask your new colleagues, you know where I live.

  8. Jennifer Rohn says:

    What’s that dark circular space in the middle of the cell where the DNA lives?
    My new colleagues, I should have mentioned, are all being very supportive, despite the fact that I keep forgetting silly things, such as how many millimeters long a standard culture dish is and what some of the reagents are called. I seem to have some mystique in that they are all fly people and they are keen to know more about mammalian techniques. I may not remember what things are called, by gum, but I still know how to do…things with the…thingies.

  9. Richard P. Grant says:

    What’s that dark circular space in the middle of the cell where the DNA lives?

  10. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Heh. But really, all this is making me realize how important one’s memory is for lab work. My neurons don’t seem to store things as well as they used to when I was in the lab, so I plan to keep lots of lists!

  11. Richard P. Grant says:

    Oh look, don’t worry about it. I was doing RNA preps (proper ones, with phenol an’ all) for six months solid, and then had a break for three months. I had to read the bloody method again. How sad is that?
    You’ll probably find, especially with things like cell culture, that your fingers remember by themselves how to do stuff. Certainly mine did after a break of several years in doing culture.

  12. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I’m quite excited to try entirely new things as well (such as RNAi) – then the blank slate doesn’t matter so much!

  13. Hsien-Hsien Lei says:

    Congratulations on a successful start! I fear that if I were in your shoes, I might have been huddled in the corner furtively looking up methods on the Internet. 😉

  14. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Thanks, H.H. I will only admit to a quick peek on wikipedia to remind myself of something incredibly obvious – I don’t think anyone noticed.
    As an aside, is it just me or are a lot of scientists now consulting wikipedia as their first port of call? When I was last a researcher, all we had was inter-library loan! (Shoot me now before I start reminiscing about the Great War.)

  15. Richard P. Grant says:

    Hell, no

  16. Jennifer Rohn says:

    So that report that wikipedia is pretty much as accurate as a traditional encyclopedia may not apply to hard science entries? I’m not surprised if so. It would be interesting if someone would repeat that study focusing on a scientific discipline and see just how bad the situation is.

  17. Frank Norman says:

    The report comparing Wikipedia and Brittanica was looking specifically at science entries. The report also said “As well as comparing the two encyclopaedias, Nature surveyed more than 1,000 Nature authors and found that although more than 70% had heard of Wikipedia and 17% of those consulted it on a weekly basis, less than 10% help to update it. ”
    So, if you don’t like what you see the asnwer is simple – get in and correct it!

  18. Frank Norman says:

    Jennifer – you may find that you have access to a load of other (relibale) electronic reference sources that your Univ Library is subscribing to. Most of the big publishers have online scientific encyclopedias, though some are costly. Our challenge is how to make these subscription-controlled resources as visible to users as the free stuff they find through Google.

  19. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Thanks, Frank, that’s really helpful. I am certainly enjoying being back in a university environment – I had forgotten how much they look after you.
    I think even if scientists helped to update wikipedia, you wouldn’t necessarily get a reliable answer. Papers often conflict, and authors will be biased towards their own theories. I’ve always thought encyclopedias were better consulted for the basics – let the scientists battle it out in the primary literature until a ‘fact’ is (more) solidified. Although I could see a case for a ‘primary wiki’ where the state-of-the-art on various topics is constantly refined and being overwritten. (The only danger being, as you’ve already alluded to, that the most dedicated scientists might be in the lab with no time to contribute.)

  20. Frank Norman says:

    That’s certainly how we’ve always thought of it – established facts in textbooks and encyclopaedias; cutting edge stuff in primary literature. But in these days of wikis and more perhaps that is changing. A recent Nature news item highlighted the “Wiki for professionals”
    I guess scientists will do this stuff if it gets them proper recognition.

  21. Richard P. Grant says:

    I am not at all convinced by the Nature report into Wikipedia. See here , here and the Britannica response . To summarize, Nature screwed up.
    Moreover, as Ian said in his comment at the Labrats,
    Yeah, I keep hearing that from the wikizombies. I corrected a few articles, and they got gnawed back to brainlessness within a few days. What’s the point? The place is founded on an anti-expert philosophy, so why be surprised when the experts you rejected aren’t interested in pulling your chestnuts out of the fire?
    What is the point of correcting things if the Wikipedia editors are more interested in their process (and ‘giving a fair hearing’) than in scholarship?
    Sorry to be so hard on them, but, hey, this is science. And Jen will soon find out how lucky she really is 🙂

  22. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Heh. So you think that many wiki editors are from the humanities school of thought that says that scientific facts can also be just another ‘opinion’ to factor into the democratic mix?

  23. Richard P. Grant says:

    It certainly looks like it to this ‘caveman’.

  24. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Then I suggest a revolution: a scientists-only wikipedia for science. Must have a PhD from an accredited university and a current and credible scientific affiliation; maybe you’d have to have published at least X papers in reputable scientific journals?

  25. Richard P. Grant says:

    But it cuts both ways Jen. Where’s my incentive to contribute? If the articles are peer-reviewed then it can go on my CV. Otherwise, there’d have to be cold, hard cash involved.
    The problem with these projects is that it’s the people with plenty of time on their hands who get involved (he types, while slurping a morning coffee and pulling his socks on); these are precisely the people we don’t want!
    Having said that, thanks to Frank for pointing at WikiProteins . And Jen, I think we do need a publicly-accessible, readable, ‘free’ (in all senses) encyclopaedia. But there has to be some incentive, as I say, for busy scientists to contribute.

  26. Richard P. Grant says:

    Proposal for you.

  27. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Nice first blog, Richard – everyone go look! I posted my reply there.

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