The Laboratory Lifestyle

As a science student in high school and at university, I spent most of my time memorizing chemical reaction cascades, pondering the inner workings of […]

As a science student in high school and at university, I spent most of my time memorizing chemical reaction cascades, pondering the inner workings of electrical impulses in the nervous system, considering the evolutionary relationships among different phyla, and striving to embody the scientific method in my questions and investigations.  There were certainly long hours spent in lab practicals learning the art of using a Bunsen burner or of measuring volume accurately.  Most of my coursework, however, focused on theoretical and factual knowledge of science.

Now I’ve started a PhD and am ready to put that knowledge to use in my own research.  And while all that studying does contribute to my work, I find myself spending a lot of time doing things that never appeared in my undergrad curriculum.  The other day, for instance, I spent the afternoon sitting on the floor with a measuring tape and an exacto knife cutting out pieces of soundproofing foam to insulate equipment.  The following day, my colleague and I devoted several hours to trying to find the source of some electrical noise – switch on one machine, test; switch on another, test again; try a different wall socket, test yet again.  Another large chunk of my lab time is devoted to computer work: getting my head around the syntax of various programming languages, wondering which boxes to tick in the statistics software to get my data analyzed, and discovering tricks for manipulating long lists of numbers in Excel.

To any experienced researcher, this all sounds quite normal and may prompt a “Yeah, that’s the life of a scientist alright – so what?”  And because my parents and teachers got me into summer research internships early on, I was well aware of the realities of lab life by the time I got to my PhD.  But that’s not what science looks like to the general public, or to the high schoolers and undergrads who study it.  The public tends to view scientists with awe, and it’s no wonder given the way they’re portrayed in popular culture – whiz-kid brainiacs who spout a few convoluted sentences stuffed with scientific jargon, scribble some complex mathematical equations, throw a handful of chemicals into a beaker, wave around a pipette, and presto, have suddenly solved a crime, cured cancer, or unraveled the mystery of the universe.  Even leaving this extreme image cultivated by film and television aside, there remains a sense that science is all about smarts.  After all, it’s a field where getting a PhD is routine – how could it not be a heady endeavor, a constant workout of intellectual capacity?

While I’m certainly not trying to claim that science doesn’t require serious study and intellectual work, I would contend that doing research is as much about developing practical skills as it is about learning facts and puzzling over ideas.  Scientific research requires knowledge of electronics, carpentry, and statistics; it entails computer programming and arts-and-crafts projects; it demands good people skills and, above all, good organizational skills.  Depending on your area of research, your ability to load a syringe properly, make a subject comfortable, clearly label test tubes, or even successfully photocopy a questionnaire might have as big an impact on your work as your knowledge of the literature or the robustness of your hypothesis.  Science is intellectual, cutting edge, and groundbreaking.  It is also mundane – and what’s interesting about scientific research is that the mundane parts of it are as important to its success as all the rest.

For me, the diverse skill set required is one of the best things about a career in science.  It keeps work varied and lets you use your brain in different ways – just when you’re feeling burned out on reading papers, it’s time to build or repair some equipment; and when you get restless screwing in bolts and plugging in wires, there’s always more literature waiting to be read and data to be analyzed.  I greatly admire friends in the humanities who sit themselves in the library for weeks at a time, but I’m glad my work takes me away from my desk and into the practical, hands-on world of the lab on a daily basis.

That said, lab life is not for everyone – and, critically, it’s not even for everyone who enjoys studying science at school.  Science in the classroom is very different from science in the lab.  Studying science involves constantly learning new things about the way the world works, and while that continues in the lab, there’s also a lot of time spent doing repetitive, monotonous tasks that are as important to the success of the experiment as thinking and learning and critical analysis.  Hence the importance of getting research experience before deciding to make a career of it.  To help their students decide whether a career in science is right for them, schools should encourage high schoolers to apply for summer research internships, and undergraduate science degrees should include practical projects in the final year (or even earlier – the longer the project, the more accurate an experience of real research it will be).  Taking time to work as a research assistant, or to do a research-based master’s degree, is another good way to log more lab time before deciding to commit to a PhD in science.  This is a particularly important point to make in the UK, where it is possible (although not necessarily typical) to show up to one’s PhD with next to no lab experience.  And even in the U.S., where PhD programs have built-in research rotations, science students could benefit from more internship and undergraduate research opportunities.

Providing more research experience is one way schools and universities could better prepare science students for a career in research; another is setting required coursework in the practical skills needed to do research.  A solid background in stats is essential – and, at the moment, is something many science students (myself included) slip through without acquiring.  Basic computer programming is also a must – coding is an essential tool for managing the massive data sets that science generates nowadays.  And a carpentry fundamentals class might not be a bad idea – as a PhD student, you’ll want to be able to wield that exacto knife with confidence!

About Clio Korn