All of my professional life, I’ve worked in affluent labs – in academic groups bolstered by multiple sources of grant money, or in a biotech setting flush with investor capital. More recently, I’ve enjoyed a generous personal consumables budget courtesy of my Wellcome Trust Fellowship.
The fridges and freezers in these work spaces have been crammed full of reagents accumulated over many years. Old chemicals are often perfectly serviceable, which increases the value of such well-stocked treasure troves. In my previous lab, for example, I inherited a scruffy, foil-wrapped 15 mL Falcon tube of ethidium bromide solution from the previous inhabitants in Alan Hall’s group, circa 2004; I dipped into this tube for my entire 4.5 year stint – it worked beautifully – and left it behind for the next lucky user to enjoy. Another bequeath chez Hall were three full boxes of alphabetically arranged restriction enzymes from Aat1I to ZraI, most with expiry dates in the early- to mid-1990s. Despite this, the majority still managed to cut DNA with some degree of efficiency. In karmaic payback mode, I made sure to leave behind most of the unfinished chemicals that I’d purchased.
The upshot of working in a wealthy lab is that you can often think of an experiment and then start it a few minutes later. If you don’t have a particular reagent, there is usually an entire building of colleagues from which you can borrow – or an entire campus if you can be arsed to brave the cold. In my first novel Experimental Heart, I describe the detailed etiquette of this “scrounge culture”, illustrating the importance of your neighbors – and the contents of their freezers – in keeping the engines of science running.
For the past week and a half, I’ve been settling into my new home here in one of the satellite campuses of the main university. The lab I’m charged with starting up mostly from scratch is enormous – 7 entire bays and five side-rooms – but it is also almost empty (aside from great piles of junk that we’re in the process of clearing out, including some amazing historical glassware that is probably worth a few bob – but that’s another story). As a remote site, the campus is a cobbled-together mixture of orphan disciplines that struck out on their own sometime in the distant past, probably as overspill. As a result, there is plenty of room, but the trade-off is that individual groups are divorced from the rest of their departments. Our building, for example, is an eclectic mix of people who don’t have much in common – and that includes the material we work with. In fact, my lab will be the only biomedical research facility on the entire site.
All this means that there will be no popping across the corridor for a quick scrounge; instead, appointments must be made, journeys on the London Underground undertaken. Yet with give-and-take being so crucial for the scrounge culture, I foresee a problem: I may borrow from colleagues on the main site, but no one is going to travel up here to borrow something from me in turn. Hence, any scrounges will become increasingly one-sided, and therefore psychologically unsustainable. I fear we will have to get used to going it alone – and preparing well in advance for any contingency.
So here I am, getting to grips with things. The lab has tissue culture hoods but no CO2 mains or liquid nitrogen. Historically a clinical microbiology lab, we’re strong on Gram’s iodine, agar plates, haemocytometers and specimen jars, but entirely lacking in basic items like enzymes, the means to assess DNA and protein, and advanced imaging apparati. So we’re busy ringing up companies, getting quotes, sketching floorplans, liaising with the site manager.
It’s exciting to face this blank canvas, roll up my sleeves and start making something vibrant and exciting out of it. In fact, it’s made me realize that throughout my career in both research and publishing, the appointments which have proved most stimulating and successful have been those in which the culture or infrastructure needed sorting out, shaking up, reinvention.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Doctor is In.
She’s only wishing she’d brought along that scruffy Falcon tube.