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Experimental Error: What Happens in the Lab Stays in the Lab

Experimental Error, Graduate

Credit: G. Grullón/Science

One day in seventh grade, I took out my calculator and started typing while I waited for class to begin. The students nearby found this hilarious.

"What are you doing?" one of them taunted. They laughed. Another answered for me in a mock nerd voice: "I'm calculating my curriculum!" They laughed even harder.

Calculating my curriculum? Do you morons even know that those words don't mean anything?

Besides, what I was really doing was typing "5318008" to see whether, as rumor had it, turned upside down it spelled "BOOBIES."i

If you're like me, you didn't exactly grow up in a society hospitable to budding scientists. We felt the world's priorities were out of whack. The school held pep rallies for sports but not for academics. A high test score required faux shame. ("I don't know what happened. ... I must have accidentally written the correct answers.") The kid who took out a calculator was worthy of ridicule, but the kid who licked the moving belt sander in shop class on a dare -- now, he was someone to be admired.

Growing up, we wanted to live in a science-based society, one that rewards intellect, values reason, and mandates evidence-based decisions -- not unlike, say, a certain starship commanded by Jean-Luc Picard. Instead, we found ourselves stuck in a world in which emotions dictate behavior, rationality is frustratingly avoided, and the most revered people are the ones who can throw balls far.

If only, we thought, we could construct our own societies.

Our sanctuaries of science manifest many of the same arbitrary, illogical rules we'd hoped to escape.

* * *

And so we did. Every day, we occupy little societies made by scientists for scientists. Science decorates the walls, science occupies every corner, and science determines who wins arguments. No one gossips about what you wear, as long as you have closed-toed shoes. You can use polysyllabic words in conversation ad liberandum. You can even use words like "polysyllabic" and expressions like ad liberandum.

We made our own sanctuaries with our own rules. We call them our laboratories.

* * *

Think of those idyllic scientocracies we sought to create: the bright lights, multicolored liquids, press conferences, robot butlers, and super-intelligent, helpful chimps. The machinery from Iron Man with the interface from Minority Report in the facility from Spiderman 2, populated by the grad students from Real Genius. Danica McKellar as the lab statistician.

Unfortunately, you don't work in that laboratory, and neither do I. Our sanctuaries of science manifest many of the same arbitrary, illogical rules we'd hoped to escape. Here are some of the Actual, Somewhat Universal Rules of the Laboratory by which we all abide:

Credit: Hal Mayforth

1. No matter how rigorously obtained, results will be mistrusted if they are more than 5 years old, and the experiments will be repeated. This is doubly true if the results came from someone else's lab.

2. A co-worker who routinely shows pristine data must be disparaged and suspected of misconduct. A co-worker who routinely shows lousy data must be disparaged and suspected of incompetence.

3. If a piece of equipment sits idle on a lab bench for weeks at a time and then you and a co-worker both want to use it at 3:00 p.m. on Thursday, a case will be made for purchasing another one.

4. Unlabeled bottles of reagents have a longer shelf life than labeled bottles. ("Let's not throw this away," reasons the grad student charged with cleaning out the fridge. "It could contain something important." Typically, "something important" means "rampant fungus.")

5. Random decisions pertaining to lab protocols will become entrenched and will persist unquestioned for years. You can test this one out: If your protocol requires doing something for, say, 30 minutes, change it to 32 minutes and then visit the lab in 10 years. The person who has taken over your role in the lab will still perform that step for 32 minutes without knowing why. Unless, in the interim, someone has decided to test out the random decisions behind lab protocols.

6. Bringing stellar results to the lab meeting will make you almost as popular as bringing cookies to the lab meeting.

7. Grad students will think that the principal investigator (PI) never does any work. The PI will think that the grad students never do any work. The postdoctoral fellows will have children and stop doing any work. The undergraduates will use lab space to do work for other classes. Paid lab techs will do honest work, but no one will give their results any credence because they're just paid lab techs. Every person will believe he or she does the most work.

8. Safety protocols must be adhered to, rigidly, by everyone else. Not by you, because you're awesome.

9. There are nerds even within nerd-dom: Even though you all love science, you still think, "at least I'm cooler than my co-worker who won't shut up about Settlers of Catan."

10. The expensive computer purchased to run the isothermal titration microcalorimeter will also, mysteriously, run Angry Birds.

11. If you work in industry, much of your time will be spent filling out forms that don't matter. If you work in academia, nothing you do will matter.

12. If you interfere with someone else's experiment, you are Satan. Even if it wasn't your fault. Even if you apologize. Even if the experiment was about to burn down the building.

* * *

You might think it's time to trot out the old cliché that scientists are human after all, subject to the same emotions and biases as the kid who accused me of calculating my curriculum.

Nuts to that. We are different; every kid in seventh grade made damn sure I knew how different. Either they were right, and we were slow to learn how the world works, or we were right, and our classmates sucked. I, for one, believe they sucked.

This is a call to arms, people. We've let our human side show, and it isn't pretty. Let's tuck it back out of sight and get on with the business of feeling superior. I have written a pledge -- a mantra -- that we should all repeat each time we feel ourselves succumbing to the pettiness and humanity of the Actual, Somewhat Universal Rules:

I am a scientist.

I will do things that make sense.

I will evaluate the results of my experiments objectively, and if they fail, I will say so. No one will steal my lunch money.

I like exactness. How much do I like it? Five.

I like precision. How much do I like it? Several additional fives.

The only emotion I will demonstrate, let alone experience, is triumph at kicking an experiment's ass.

Our mutual aim is to discover knowledge about the universe. So we will be nice to each other and help each other and share resources, because a society of just one person is not a real society. It is the Newt Gingrich campaign.

Only one method will dictate my actions, and that is the scientific method. Hear me, world: I am a scientist. And I am proud to be science's bitch.


iThe appeal of such activities abated by the time I entered high school, since we all had TI-85 graphing calculators, and we could not only type the word "BOOBIES" directly, we could graph a limaçon that looked like a butt.