Do YOU Know What Daily Lab Life is Really Like?

August 12, 2014 at 2:56 pm Leave a comment

The Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) recently posted an article (adapted from a publication at the University of Toronto), entitled “A Day in the Life of a Lab.” The article touched upon six points that, according to the author, “you” don’t know about life in the lab. Without copy-pasting the article, (you should read it for yourself), here are the 6 points in brief:

  1. Students make up the bulk of the laboratory workforce
  2. Running the lab is like running a small business
  3. Lab research is a form of teaching
  4. It’s not about a breakthrough
  5. There is no rest…cell culture doesn’t take a vacation
  6. It’s fun…lab members get together every evening to discuss science

OK. Where shall we begin? While I agree with the majority of what is written in the article, there are a couple of points that I take issue with. Let’s start with the points of agreement and move on from there.

I give the article credit for recognizing the role of students in scientific research and scientific progress. Without graduate students, NOTHING in the lab would get done! Students are the heart and soul of the lab and so it is refreshing to hear someone give them the acknowledgement that they deserve.

Point number one fits very well with point number three. It is due to the fact that students make up the bulk of the lab workforce that has enabled lab research to become a form of teaching. Where there are students, there must be teachers. And who are the teachers? None other than the students themselves! While the PI is there to give overall guidance and direction, she is largely relegated to fundraising (i.e. grant writing), networking and publishing papers. The real education happens at the hands of other students. Post-docs teach grad students and second year students teach the newbies. It is a refreshing system of paying it forward.

I also applaud point number 4. Despite what has been portrayed in pop culture, working at the bench is not about coming up with a scientific breakthrough or earning the next Nobel Prize (although that would be nice). Bench work is about slogging it out day after day, making small changes to experimental conditions in order to come up with something that will hopefully be a small piece in the larger scientific puzzle. Although it is often hard to see the forest for the trees, without these every day baby steps, the bigger picture would never appear. There is no glory in daily bench work. It is tough. That is why point number 5 is so hard to swallow.

In point number five, the author correctly points out that there is no rest for the bench scientist. Whether you are working with animals that need to be fed daily, or performing crazy dose response curves, you need to make sure that someone is always there to keep things running smoothly. Lab work is not even close to your neighbor’s desk job. Your vacation schedule revolves around your samples and your experiments. If your cells need to be passaged at 90% confluence, you better be around to do the passaging or your entire experiment may go down the drain.

Until now, I have discussed the points that I agree with in the article. Now for the other side.

Since the CFI is the largest scientific research funding organization in Canada, I would imagine that the majority of its visitors are indeed scientists. If that is the case, then I doubt that the “you” the author is referring to is indeed in the dark about life in the lab. After all, who would know more about life in the lab than those of us who have dedicated our lives to laboratory research?

In point number two, the author states that “running the lab is like running a small business.” While on the surface that may seem logical, (after all a PI has to worry about expenses such as equipment, consumables and staffing), businesses and scientific research are on the opposite ends of the funding spectrum. While businesses consume products in order to grow their bank accounts, scientists consume their grant funding in order to produce scientific output. In other words, businesses are about making money while science is about spending money (albeit in order to produce results).

With regards to the final point in the article, lab members do indeed have fun after work, however, portraying scientists as having a one-track mind, (science, science, science), feeds into the negative stereotype that all scientists are boring nerds. Scientists come from many different backgrounds and have a myriad of interests…just like the general population. I believe that it is up to us, the scientific community, to get the word out there that scientists are people too!

That’s all for now. What do you have to say?

Entry filed under: Biotechnology Careers. Tags: , .

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