Mondayitis, Friday syndrome, and other really good reasons to stay out of the lab

Research shows that Mondays are bad for research

Can’t quite wake up on a Monday morning? The best thing you can do for your research is avoid the lab. Seriously. Just go out for a coffee or sit in front of the computer and catch up on your literature-searching. Better yet, just spend the day in bed. It can save you months of work and spare you substantial mental anguish.

I know this because I’ve worked in research long enough to have experienced it firsthand. Repeatedly.

Most recently was Monday morning when the network went down. The lab filled with many dazed and confused people who would usually be compiling data from the previous week or undertaking the calculations for the coming week. Without access to the network there was nothing to do but start lab work.

An office-bound manager may have looked through the glass wall at everyone in the lab and think it was the most productive day EVER. But it was actually a very distressing morning of things just going wrong. And for no reason except that the natural order of things is coffee THEN lab work. Some laws must not be broken.

Similarly, Friday afternoon is never a good time to start any sort of lab work. Failure is not necessarily guaranteed but chances of success fall to well below the 5% mark. Not a good time to deal with any critical samples.

Scientific instruments are also acutely aware of labour regulations on a Friday afternoon and usually start evoking their rights just after you’ve prepped all your samples. If you’re not going to work over the weekend, neither are they.

That’s even before we start considering user error. It must be noted that users do become increasingly stupid as the clock ticks towards home time on a Friday. After setting up a big trial to run over the weekend it is really easy to just click Ok to any and all messages on the instrument computer just to get things running.

Message box: “Do you want me to destroy all your samples and not give you any data?”

Me: “Yeah sure, whatever, just start already.” <mouse click>

Me, two femtoseconds later: “Wait, what? I mean ‘No’. Cancel! Cancel! CANCEL!!” <foetal position, sobbing>

This is possibly an exaggeration, but not by much. Consequently, Fridays are best reserved for cleaning and filling tip boxes.

As for feeling generally under the weather or a little like the onset of flu, don’t even step foot in the lab. It will only end badly.

This is how I invented my (now patented) lab-ninja manoeuvre. I fought the brain fog one day to come in to check on a trial that I had set up the day before. I was going over what I had done and picked up an error in my calculations that adversely affected the whole trial. I had to start again.

Nevermind, I consoled myself. Just clean it up and get it all going again and properly this time.

So I threw out all the samples and cleaned up the containers and everything and then started to set up the trial again. And then I re-checked my calculations.

No, wait. That was right the first time… <face palm>

It would have been better if I just stayed in bed a bit longer and come in if not refreshed then at least not completely stupid.

Research is one of those few jobs where it is actually better and more productive to stop lab work when you’re not feeling up for it. A bad day in a desk job is not getting much done. A bad day in the lab is destroying samples that took months to prepare and having to start from scratch.

So the next time you’re feeling a bit under the weather or taken with a sudden urgency to be in the lab on a Friday afternoon or Monday pre-coffee, just stop and take a deep breath and go write some emails. It may be the most productive thing you can do.

For the want of a family: the reason for the gender divide in scientific research

The big old Nobel-prize winning dinosaur who made stupid comments about women in science has justifiably suffered the repercussions of trial-by-social media. Okay, the comments were intended to be tongue-in-cheek but the brilliant #devastatinglysexy backlash on Twitter highlights that gender discrimination is still a very sore point for many women in science.

There’s inappropriate behaviour, patronizing attitudes and outright long-held opinions that women just can’t do science. In some people. A dwindling number of people, in fact, and more often than not male researchers don’t hold to these archaic ideals.

The lab is actually – at least in my experience – a great place to work as a female. There’s a great deal of comradery amongst men and women and groups of mixed gender friends are common.

Problems arise when we mention families. Most of my male colleagues have a young family. They’ve gone through all that rigmarole of announcing their impending child and then disappearing on paternity leave for a week or two before returning to much fanfare and congratulations. Then they get to continue their research with nothing more than a holiday-length blip in their career trajectory.

And yet the when women who work in research have a child… oh, that’s right. There are no female colleagues in research with young children. And that’s the difference.

Women still need to choose career or family while men seem to be able to have both. I acknowledge that some men may want to be much more involved in raising their kids and the two week paternity leave is woefully inadequate. I also acknowledge the challenges faced by women who want both a career and a family.

It can be done. I’ve heard of stories of women who have a successful career and a family. They usually do this with great personal sacrifice, amazing time-management skills and a very supportive partner. For those of us without those super-human powers, it really is an either/or choice. Even with the offer of maternity leave.

Friends have told me about the challenges of having a child and working in research. First there is the timing. When is the best time to plan for a child? One friend was pregnant during the thesis-writing stage of her PhD and consequently struggled to find her first post-doc. She’s found a great job now but the downtime after her first child was a large gap in her career.

Another friend was well-established in her career with a research job that she loved but she also really wanted a family. She had to time the pregnancy with the grant approvals to get maternity leave and while her company guaranteed to give her a job when she returned, there was no guarantee that it would be in the same position or even the same research group.

And then there is the career gap. The difficulty with keeping up to date with publications let alone going to conferences and keeping your networks strong and your lab skills up to speed. It can be a real challenge to be competitive in grant applications against those who have no gaps in their career.

These issues are so “first world problems” compared to the horrible conditions faced by our female fore bearers in science. Always struggling to convince others to take your ideas seriously despite your gender and then having your good ideas stolen by your male supervisor. As well as not getting your paper published if you used a female name and never being allowed to go to conferences let alone present at one.

I was really encouraged recently when I attended a Women in Science event recently and they showed the plans that are in place to limit the career impact of women having kids and men who want to take paternity leave.

We are so fortunate today that so much progress has been made in removing gender bias from scientific research. Research is a great career for women and today there is comparatively little active discrimination against female scientists. But we are still a very long way from thinking sexist tongue-in-cheek statements are actually funny.

Riding the rollercoaster of scientific discovery

Science is all about ideas and problem solving and that’s why we love it. But it’s also about lots of hard work to get reproducible results and getting your paper through the potentially gut-wrenching peer-review process.

It’s exhilarating and demoralizing in equal measures although the fewer highs far outweigh the many lows. Some researchers may choose to take everything in their stride but I chose to ride that rollercoaster.

This happened recently for example. I was stuck on a problem that prevented the research from progressing to the next stage. It would be ground-breaking if I could crack this problem and open up a whole new avenue of inquiry. I was motivated.

A great idea did come to me at about 3 o’clock one morning, the Hour of Greatest Wisdom, although the incomprehensible gibberish that I found in my notebook the next morning suggested that this was probably not a real solution.

Then I was explaining my problem to an indulgent non-expert who let me go on and on about the problem. I’m assuming they let me. They didn’t physically stop me from talking so that’s about the same, I’m sure.

In explaining the problem in simple terms, I suddenly had an idea. A clever idea. Genius, in fact. It could even lead to a promotion or, possibly, a Nobel Prize.

But an idea is never enough. It has to be proven to work and the results must be repeatable and reproducible. So I went back to the lab and tried my idea while rehearsing my Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

It seemed to work first time. I had that moment of bated breath that hovers between “Wow, it worked!” and “uh oh, can I do it again?”

I tried again and it still worked. And again. Excitement was building to glorious heights! I told everyone who would listen – or, indeed, who did not walk away quick enough – about this great idea.

Only then did I recheck my calculations. I’d missed a dilution factor, changing the status of my results from “proving I’m clever” to “no significant difference”. I slumped into the low of the “I hate science” mantra and raided the chocolate box before going back to the literature to start again.

After many more attempts, I did solve that problem. Perhaps not at a Nobel Prize level but it did allow us to move on to the next phase of the project. The lows in science can be pretty low but they are always trumped by the exhilaration of new ideas and new discoveries and, because of this, I recommend the rollercoaster ride.

Beyond “Eureka!”

So the story goes, once upon a time Archimedes solved a problem and shouted “Eureka!” condemning researchers ever after to suffer the expectation of doing the same. But this story is really not the best representation of scientific discovery. Flashes of inspiration can contribute to the forward progress but most discoveries result from years or decades of cumulative slog work.

The Eureka! Story is a great story. There’s nudity, a triumphant hero, a greedy villain, and a brilliant catch phrase. Plenty to capture the imagination. But it is so 2000 years ago and people need to stop expecting scientific discoveries to be only the result of one great idea from one person once.

Science is developing at an unprecedented rate thanks to rapid peer-reviewed journal publishing and online access to the whole world of research. It’s an amazing time to be in science.

Teams of people across the globe are working together to solve problems, tiny increment by tiny increment. This involves very different people joining together, overcoming language barriers and cultural differences to reach a common goal. And that’s just across scientific disciplines. There’s no App available yet for converting chemistry jargon to biology jargon.

Science is brilliant story of unlikely heroes banding together for the greater good, almost like highly trained warriors from different armies who suddenly have to unite against a new and monstrous enemy.

This is even better than Archimedes’ Eureka story on so many levels. All we really need to capture people’s imagination now is a bloody good catch phrase.