For over a decade I have been head-over-heels in love with science, and it seemed the feeling was shared. But, as in many long-term relationships, things have gone a little stale. Although my affair with scientific research is yet to reach the crockery-hurling stage, we?re now to the point of terse grunts and painful silences. So what?s a girl to do in these circumstances? My self-help book Labcoats Are From Mars, Pipettes Are From Venus suggested compiling all the good and bad things about science as a way to objectively assess the situation. This seemed like a protocol even I could manage, so here goes.
Pro: The Clothes
Expensive power suits? Toe-crushing high heels? No way. For scientists, jeans and T-shirts are de rigueur. We may look somewhat scruffy, but our working wardrobe is blissfully affordable and incredibly comfortable. Slobbing about in sweaty sports kit after a lunchtime run is also perfectly acceptable. And the best thing about ?lab fashion? is that when I actually put on a nice frock and some greasepaint to go out, the transformation is quite startling.
Con: The Clothes
Sometimes, a girl can tire of modelling freebie biotech T-shirts and yearn for a more stylish look, even in a lab. It seems that only French scientists are allowed to be chic--a feat they achieve without apparently trying at all. You can guarantee that the day I wear my trendiest shirt is the day I spill silver staining solution down my front. And eyeliner is a no-no on days spent looking down a microscope, unless you consider the panda look to be the height of sophistication.
Pro: The Hours
We scientists have no concept of the 9-to-5 working day. We arrive at a time that is convenient for us, and we leave when our experiments are finished. Or when we?re fed up. Likewise, a scientist?s time is full of many useful gaps during experiments which are perfect for pub lunches (for discussing results, of course), Web-surfing (for scientific papers, naturally), and endless cups of coffee (for fuel).
Con: The Hours
I have lost count of the number of times the clock has crept close to midnight and I've cursed my poor time-management skills and overloaded to-do list. It doesn?t help that experiments do not adhere to the usual laws of space and time--it is a fact that everything always takes longer than you expect, especially if you?re in a hurry. Having a social life dictated by the whims of sluggish cells and misbehaving experiments can rapidly become very annoying. Unless, of course, you have no social life.
Pro: The People
I have been lucky enough to work in labs stocked with some of the nicest people on the planet. Contrary to popular belief, scientists are normal, warm, and funny human beings who bring in cakes just because it?s Thursday and agree to mind your experiments over the weekend.
Con: The People
As well as a cast of angels, I have also met characters who wouldn?t go amiss in a ?Colleagues from Hell? documentary. They know who they are, the sinners who finish up reagents or break equipment without confessing, and the paranoid types who are so worried about contamination they won?t even allow you to breathe in their presence. I also suspect that my rampant disorganisation, untidiness, and clumsiness doesn?t endear me to all of my colleagues. And although it seems churlish to complain, all that cake is playing havoc with my waistline.
Pro: The Bench Work
Sometimes, experiments can be really fun. Making gels and mixing coloured solutions are all activities with a definite Playskool feeling. Scientists get to play with great bits of kit like confocal microscopes and even get to take a peek right into the heart of nature. Trying new protocols can also be interesting and even exciting.
Con: The Bench Work
The feeling wears off when that protocol fails for the fourteenth time, though--at which point I am truly exasperated and ask others in the lab for help. ?You remembered to sacrifice a small goat in between steps 5 and 6, didn?t you?? and ?You can?t seriously expect it to work when Saturn is on the cusp of Scorpio!? are the least arcane suggestions they can offer. Lucky pipettes and secret rituals abound within the world of allegedly rational science, and I am learning to accept that sometimes experiments just don?t work. But I?ll keep on leaving offerings on the altar of the God of Science, just in case.
Pro: The Conferences
There?s something tremendously inspiring about spending entire days listening to people talking about their latest research with enthusiasm. I always get my best science ideas during conferences and love socialising with fellow attendees, swapping ideas, and setting up collaborations. I?m sure that getting free trips to beautiful cities, staying in posh hotels, and skiing on fresh powder also greatly enhance the scientific quality of these events. ...
Con: The Seminars
Maybe I?m just too conscientious, but I?ve also wasted many hours of my life, hours that could have been better spent in the lab, or even the pub, listening to dull talks. Where I work it is sometimes possible to go to several seminars a day, and it could easily be misinterpreted as excellent opportunities for work avoidance or quick naps. Actually, perhaps this should be a ?pro??
Pro: The Beauty
During my undistinguished research career I have been privileged enough to work with mouse embryos. These tiny balls of cells are heart-stoppingly beautiful and an endless source of wonder and curiosity for me. I wouldn?t miss the test tubes and tissue culture plates, but a future without these miniature miracles would definitely look bleak.
Con: The Cruelty
Unfortunately, looking at mouse cells down a microscope means using mice that are alive and kicking to start with. Although I am satisfied that we adhere to the strictest Home Office guidelines and do our utmost to ?replace, reduce, and refine? our use of the little squeakers according to the law, sending them to the great Mousehole in the Sky on a regular basis is rather depressing.
Like any partner, science has its good and bad points. Unlike men, science doesn?t blow its nose on yesterday?s socks or leave the toilet seat up, but those quirky characteristics of lab life that were initially endearing can become grating and intolerable as time goes on. I suspect that my own relationship with academic science may be on the verge of a breakdown ... so watch this space for further instalments in my quest for career fulfilment.
Kat Arney is currently seeking marriage guidance....