There are just no sick days in research

Staying in bed isn’t always an option in research

It’s a strange phenomenon of researchers that we feel this weird desire to work. I’ve been struck down by the lurgy this week but was driven out of bed, hurling my mucous-laden tissues aside, with noble cry of “I have to go to the lab!” as though somehow the world would stop turning if I didn’t.

And so, dosed high on all over-the-counter cold and flu tablets that I could find, I went in. And I wasn’t alone.

It’s been a bad season for colds and many people at work have been struck down. The lab is full of coughs and sneezes.

“Go home!” I tell everyone and they tell me.

“Yes, I’ll just do this one thing…” comes the inevitable reply. Where upon they end up putting in a hard day’s work and knocking off late.

Wouldn’t it be better if all of us with colds did spend the day at home? Probably.

It would certainly stop the trauma of carefully weighing out a polysaccharide sample. And then sneezing. Or the potential sample contamination of coughing all over the freshly poured petri dishes. Not to mention the potential contamination of colleagues.

But science stops for no one. A short stint in the lab can keep microbes alive, keep fermentations on track and keep instruments collecting data.

The threat of getting behind far or, worse, having to redo something far outweighs the biohazard threat we become as we enter the lab with a cold. At least we of the cold-ridden think it does. The lack of rational thought should be added to the list of symptoms.

So tonight I will crash to bed early and tomorrow I will head again to the lab to do ‘one more thing’, which might include making cold and flu medication that actually works. We can only hope.

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Writing a new chapter in science. Literally

Books. Like journal articles but heavier

Why do researchers write book chapters? Cutting edge science is clearly in the journal articles and this is always the best place to showcase research. The next best thing is to attend conferences where we can point out our latest research and hope people will find our paper. And then cite our paper.

Yet we spend a great deal of time compiling book chapters whenever the opportunity arises.

The problem with books is that they sit in a library. At my work, that means going all the way down one flight of stairs. I’d then need to carry the book all the way back upstairs. The only real upside is that I’m sure that counts towards a gym workout.

Online journal articles are far easier and more readily available. They are the most current, cutting edge science. In so far as is possible after the months of redrafting.

I’ve heard it said that the amount of effort spent in writing and re-drafting peer-reviewed scientific papers is so great that every ten papers published equates to a writing a novel. Such a great analogy. I think I’m onto about my third book by now.

With journal articles always as the go-to place for the latest research, books may be considered passé. So why do we bother to write book chapters?

Mostly it is because there is something more permanent about contributing a chapter in a book.

The hope that it will make a longer lasting impression than the thousands of journal articles published each year. That someone new to a topic will pick up the book and read the chapter and learn the essential elements required to understand the new papers that are published in a particular field. That the tangible pages – real pages – will hold the knowledge that will resonate through the ages.

And it’s just cool.

Mysterious laboratory happenings

Did you really misplace something? Or was it gremlins..?

Something strange happens in laboratories. The door slams suddenly when you’re working back late alone. That inexplicable puff of air that comes from nowhere as you’re walking back to your bench carrying 10.00 mg of precious, freshly-weighed sample. And, most common of all, things go missing. There are certainly supernatural forces at work here.

Some labs may have ghost mice haunting the benches underfoot. Our lab bears the tormented souls of millions of sacrificed yeast and bacteria. And they are poltergeists. I know this for a fact.

Recently a 20L container of sterile-filtered juice spontaneously began fermenting in the walk-in fridge, far below ideal conditions to start fermentation.

The fermenting juice was moved to the walk-in freezer where fermentation became more vigorous. By the next morning the container was billowing a fountain of partially-fermented juice-slushy. Impossible at -20 degrees Celsius. Unless there were poltergeist-yeasts present. True story.

There are also the migrations of inanimate objects. This is well documented for the movements of teaspoons away from tea rooms in research institutes and is also known to occur for pens. I always have at least 10 pens in my bag. Unless, of course, I actually need one and then they have all inevitably gone to wherever it is pens go. Also a true story.

In the lab, these Migrations of Inanimate Objects include pipettes, tip boxes and anything you might need in a hurry.

It’s easy to blame other people. And in some cases, it is likely to be that someone has needed something in a hurry and grabbed it from a vacant-looking bench. And then forgot where it came from, making returning it impossible.

This explanation is plausible and yet a far more convincing argument is that this is the work of gremlins. It explains so much. I once found my lab book, after an hour of looking, in the fridge. The. Fridge. Clearly I didn’t put it there. It must have been gremlins.

Perhaps with vigilance and cunning we can outwit these supernatural forces and keep equipment exactly where we need it. Or remember from where we’ve borrowed something and return it.

Bringing together ancient foes for the benefit of humanity

Uniting the scientific disciplines is almost like uniting ancient enemies

Scientific disciplines have been increasingly segregated for 300 years. This works brilliantly to achieve a deeper understanding of the world around us but it’s less helpful for solving the problems of the world. Collaborations are now essential for moving science forward but how easy will it be to bridge the yawning chasms between disciplines?

Years of study still focuses students in a particular discipline. This is still essential for ground-breaking research in one area and yet the research jobs of the future will have to include more broadly skilled scientists.

The main problem is language. Limited cross-discipline association for centuries has created an almost Darwin-like speciation of narrow-skilled scientists who can scarcely communicate with other scientists.

This is useful for nerd jokes. The funniest jokes are those that you know there are people who just won’t get it.

Pure genius

It is still a mystery as to why people think there is some sort of overriding scientific jargon when the scientists themselves can’t speak to each other. The divide is still evident in my lab with limited associations between chemists and biologists.

Some jokes never get old

On a good day, a synthetic chemist may speak in a similar manner to a natural products chemist and yet these organic chemists will not communicate with an inorganic chemist. Unless the inorganic chemist is surrounded by a cluster of microbiologists speaking in their tongue.

With such deep divisions between disciplines the idea of throwing money at a multi-disciplinary collaboration and expecting outcomes at the same pace as single discipline projects is optimistic. Yet it can be achieved.

Firstly, nothing brings ancient foes together like a common enemy. And, like so much of science, an unanswered communal problem is the best way to motivate the different disciplines to unite.

Secondly, science degrees need to place more emphasis on using a common tongue throughout science. Communicating complex ideas in a simple form is the future of science and will help bridge the great divides between disciplines, and even between scientists and other professions.

With a common enemy and effective communication, the new and improved armies of science can march forth for good of the world and achieve what no one has achieved before. I think there could be a movie about that.