I like to watch eddies that form underneath waterfalls in a cascade, the ones you see in creeks of glacial run-off rushing down the sides of mountains. The milky-green water, and everything trapped in it, seems desperate to get from point A to point B. But sometimes, the turbulence creates a moment of dithering, of pause, of milling around. If a fallen leaf, or bit of moss or bark or twig, gets swept up into the creek, it may end up in a pool, churning around with fitful energy, or sometimes even stalling in a momentarily calm center. But if you watch for a few moments longer, you will usually see the flotsam expelled from its eddy and propelled once again along its way. The forces that govern the formation and dispersal of these whirlpools are beyond me, but I can sense the mathematics flickering just underneath – present even if they are still not completely predictable or understood.
Biomedical research labs, and the departments that house them, are a lot like these pools. There’s a charged sense of purpose and activity swirling around, but for a few years, the researchers within are becalmed within a bubble of intense mental focus and scrutiny. Likewise, people are always coming and going – in any given month you’re likely to both meet a new neighbor and head off for someone else’s leaving drinks. A few colleagues carry on to bigger and better things, most carry on to do more of the same, and others sink without a trace.
I’ve been thinking a lot about lab continuity as my contract nears its completion. I’m one of several people on this corridor who’s recently had their termination meeting ahead of the end of a fellowship, and it’s time for us to start preparing for how we will pass on all the skills, knowledge, data and reagents that we have accumulated over the years. Some of us are more organized than others, needless to say.
Me, I fall somewhere between average and obsessive-compulsive. My notebooks are novelistic in detail, but my freezer space has recently become a bit dishevelled.
It’s going to be a big job, but I’m determined to do it right. Because it’s no exaggeration to say that most labs harbor a lost treasure-trove of the forgotten. In my travels through the minus-eighty freezers of this world, I’ve seen rack after rack of Eppendorf tubes labelled only with the numbers one through 24; final bleeds from long-dead rabbits who gave their lives to produce an antibody that was never even properly tested; endless seas of constructs that took months to make, their tube markings smudged beyond all recognition. I’ve been bequeathed lab books full of data enough for half a paper, never to be finished by someone else for lack of documentary evidence. I’ve seen kits and arcane equipment gathering dust on shelves because the last person who knew how they worked left the lab years ago.
This untidy archive – the dirty, wasteful secret of most labs – is simply the by-product of human nature. The closer a researcher gets to the end, the less important it all seems in the grand scheme of things – especially if he won’t benefit from the work in his next stint. And the time it takes to hand everything over is often under-appreciated; you might have good intentions, but in the last mad dash to clear your bench, use up your holidays and move on, succession tasks are often deprioritized out of existence. Our lab has recently implemented a checklist for succession, covering reagents, notebooks and skills, with the recommended start time of one month prior to departure. It’s a great idea, but I’m not sure it will work for everyone. Even highly organized lists that thoughtful people leave behind often don’t make as much sense as you’d like when you actually try to use them to locate a key image or bit of DNA. Ring up that person a few months later, and even she will find herself vague about what she meant at the time.
We should all do our best to document our passages, but the reality is that most things will get swept away without a trace. The marks we leave on anything in life are fleeting. In a business where the wheel is reinvented on a daily basis, the things that are most important will probably find a way of floating to the surface eventually, with or without our assistance.