little girl

Credt: M.Hieslmair/Flickr

Take Your Potentially Reckless Child to Lab Day

I remember the first time I wore a lab coat. I had been warned to put it on only in case of emergency, and as I pulled the white jacket from its hook and pushed my arms through the sleeves, I knew I was justified. “Of course it’s an emergency,” I thought. “It’s been at least 15 minutes since I saw Mommy.”

I had developed a case of head lice (or, as I called them then, “headlights”) and was asked to take a brief sabbatical from kindergarten. At the time, my mother was an assistant professor at Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and probably because it was agreed that I’d cause less trouble in a histology lab than at my father’s workplace—the Delaware Symphony Orchestra—my headlights and I spent the day in a small office adjoining my mother’s lab.

This was de facto Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day, or at least Secretly Take One Person’s Son to Work Day, about a decade before it became a thing.

I don’t recall much about the day, which offered my first visit to a real laboratory, so I can’t pretend that something formative happened there—that analytical centrifuges buzzed around me in a whirlwind of discovery and I knew at that moment that someday, somehow, I’d find a way to spend 7 years in grad school writing grant reports and sleeping through seminars with free beer and fruit.

But I distinctly remember my mother mistakenly assuming that crayons and paper would occupy my attention for longer than they did. She told me to only come into the lab to find her in the event of an emergency, and if I did, I’d have to wear a lab coat, which is why my first experience with a lab coat was tinged with a sense of nervous independence. (She probably ushered me right back into the office and tried to teach me what is and is not an emergency. “I’m bored,” it turns out, is not.)

I thought about that visit during last month’s Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day, which, for many parents, feels more like “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work, Where We’ll Do Nothing Productive, Day.” My company didn’t participate, but we share a building with a branch of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which had basically turned the atrium into a 1-day science summer camp.

I’m conflicted about the whole enterprise. While the NIH kids scienced it up, I pictured my 5-year-old daughter, Maya, sitting in school with the handful of other kids whose parents clearly don’t love them. I imagined her classmates returning the next day, brimming with stories about Mommy’s or Daddy’s office, their once dull eyes now full of purpose. The teachers would ask everyone to share their career aspirations during Circle Time, and when Maya would stand up, she’d declare, “I know nothing of this workforce of which you speak. I plan to mooch.”

But more than paranoia about Maya’s classmates’ opportunities, I felt like I was depriving her of the chance to peek into my world—and maybe even add a tally mark to the column of career influences. My foray into my mother’s lab 30 years ago may not have made a difference to my career, but what if that visit had included actual science-related activities? What if I had been asked to put on that lab coat, rather than asked to probably not put on that lab coat?

Last week, Maya brought home a picture from school. It’s a drawing of her standing next to a table with a microscope, and at the top she wrote, “WEN I GROW UP I WANT TO BE A SIENTIST.” She did this entirely without coaching or bribery. And she can already spell better than some scientists I know.

Maybe she doesn’t need me to bring her to work—maybe she’s absorbed the most important lessons just from being raised by a scientist. Maybe the fact that I’m a scientist, and I’m Daddy, makes science an attractive career path already.

Or maybe this is one of two drawings, and her teacher told her not to bring home the one that said, “WEN I GROW UP I WANT TO BE THE STARFISH FROM FINDING NEMO.”

I know very few scientists who leave their work at work; for most of us, science is a passion. That means we’re always at work. In a way, then, for the children of SIENTISTS, every day that we impart lessons about logic, or skepticism, or curiosity about our world is Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day. So it may not be necessary to bring our kids into the lab—but it could still be fun.

Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day has passed this year, but I’m already thinking about whether it’s worth agitating for my company to participate next year. I mean, what part of “Let’s release a band of kindergartners into a Biosafety Level 2 facility” would give anyone pause?

Whether or not it ultimately influences our children’s career paths, the day at least shows them what the adult world is like. Why shouldn’t there be a Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day? After all, isn’t every day already Take Our Work-Induced Stress Home Day?

If my company does end up participating, I’ve thought of some guidelines and recommendations it can try to follow. Feel free to bring these to your own workplace:

  • Always provide a fun and age-appropriate activity. Even the youngest visitor will love presenting at journal club!
  • Explain why your research is important. In addition to impressing your child, this will also give you good practice perpetuating the lies you wrote in your last grant application.
  • It’s not uncommon for children to find “adult work” somewhat boring. Don’t forget that you have a workplace tool at your disposal to perk up even the most slump-shouldered youth: Who wants coffee?
  • Children are naturally curious! Make sure they know that if they touch anything interesting, they will never be allowed to come back to your lab again.
  • Show your child what your workplace is really like. Spend half the day telling him or her how ridiculously incompetent certain co-workers are, and then dissect various Game of Thrones fan theories.

Those without children may feel left out. But don’t worry: The opportunity to work near other people’s daughters and sons can still remind you of the inquisitiveness of youth, of a time in one’s life when any path is possible.

And if you still envy those with kids to bring to work, I’m sure some of us wouldn’t mind letting you borrow ours.

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