Fun times, lab style

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Almost as hilarious as putting biohazard tape on your lunchbox

Working in the lab could be repetitive if not for the collective efforts of fellow researchers. Every week someone in the lab makes the effort to do something frivolous, purely for entertainment.tumblr_n04zgvjn8m1rqudgzo1_1280

Printout appears on noticeboards reminding giving helpful advice for researchers and lab visitors. I have a magnet that moves around this pictograph depending on how the week is going.

Inspirational quotes are also written on the whiteboard once a week by a diligent part-timer.  Motivational stuff like “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door” and sometimes truth: “a clear conscience is a sign of a bad memory”.

The drive of light-heartedness even creates highly sophisticated equipment with bullet-hole stickers on the sides and hilarious names for these instruments. We have the complete set of Thunderbirds characters for our instruments and we’re starting on a set of animated characters from Toy Story.

Oddly, justifications for new instruments such as “because if we just get a Buzz Lightyear we’ll have a complete set” don’t get much traction with the funding body.

While the general motivation is good-natured, there are tensions arising from such displays. Currently a silent battle rages in our lab played out by the Stop sign on the door to one lab. Sometimes it reads “Stop – Food-grade glassware only”, but more often it reads “Stop – in the name of love” and recently Stop – Hammer time.” This is likely to change again as the next wave of PhD students build the courage to add their version.

Little things like this make the lab more enjoyable. And reassures us that we are hilarious. Even if only other researchers think so.

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Engaging the work experience kid

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Making routine science interesting for work experience kids can be a challenge. Image: pinecrestdayschool.com

Work experience is a valuable lesson for all school kids. Particularly when it makes you realise exactly what you don’t want to do in life. Ever. And that’s an important lesson.

So when it was announced that we would be taking on a work experience kid for a few days, I was keen to show her how cool and amazing science can be to encourage her to want to pursue a scientific career.

Unfortunately, when it came to my turn to dazzle the WEK with science, I was changing the water for my dialysis samples. I tried to make it interesting and gave her some hands-on experience by letting her refill the container with water but it still lacked some scientific sparkle.

Then I tried to impress the WEK with scientific equipment and showed her how compounds are separated using HPLC. I explained the principles of compound separation and then demonstrate how to prepare the samples. It was pretty complex stuff but she was very quick and could summarise the procedure:

Me: Now we need to pipette 40 µL of sample into 2 mL screw-capped HPLC vials with 300 µL inserts.

WEK: So like, transfer the samples from one container to another?

Me: Um…yeah.

And that, my friends, is science in action. Transferring samples into different containers is the basis of my day-to-lab work. It didn’t get much better when I showed her the resulting chromatogram and explained the very scientific way in which these data are processed:

Me: We now need to draw little lines under these curves on the computer and record the numbers that come up.

WEK: <smiles and nods politely>

While work experience teaches students about the real world, it is also educational for those already in the real world. For example, I learned that a Year 10 chemistry student can do my job. At least, the lab component. And that’s a pretty big component.

One thing that must be learned by aspiring researchers is that the most interesting and challenging part of science is not conducting the experiments. It is identifying a knowledge gap, designing the experiments to give the required information, and, my favourite bit, making sense of the data from those experiments.

This is the fun part of research but unfortunately it is not necessarily communicated to a student on a few days of work experience. Not even with my repeated explanations that may have only served to make me feel better.

I just hope the novelty of working in a real lab with real experiments was interesting enough so that science isn’t on the list of things the WEK never wants to do again.

Coordinating the Great Research Project Conjunction

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The converging of research projects in this world is almost as disastrous as a Great Planetary Conjunction in other worlds. Image: greatconjunction.tumblr.com

 

Timing is the greatest challenge with natural products. No matter how beautifully constructed an experimental design and the hours that go into planning each experiment, inevitably Nature will come along and mess it all up. This week, despite my well-constructed project proposals with suitable distances between each set of analyses, I’ve ended up with three large projects converging on a single analytical time point.

Two projects are just kicking off thanks to harvest times coming together and one is the final time point of an existing project and none of them have any rights to be invading on the other.

After my inevitable melt down that came with the Great Realisation of the Impending Conjunction and the subsequent hours of therapy, I’ve realised that things might not be as bad as they seem. The key to controlling such as dilemma always comes back to the basic principles of Do, Delegate or Delete.

Ideally, I’d like to Do everything. This is mostly because I have a few control issues and difficulty letting go but that’s a topic for a-whole-nother therapy session. In this case I simply can’t do everything without sacrificing a few things, like sleep. And that’s not happening. So, grudgingly, I will prioritise the very long list of analyses and do only those in the absolutely-essential-must-be-done-now category.

Other tasks will have to be Delegated to colleagues who might have a spare moment from their own trials to run a few samples for me. Usually the analysis itself isn’t difficult, just time consuming, and unfortunately that’s something I’m short on. Borrowing some minutes from other people is enormously beneficial to me and not a burden on them, kind of like crowd-funding for time.

Delegating to work experience students might also be an option. Piling work on an unsuspecting student is apparently fine as long as the forms say ‘work experience’ and not ‘slave labour’, even if the latter is more accurate. Not that I’ve tried this yet, but at the moment, anything is looking good. And I’m sure the experience will be enjoyable for the student in an eye-opening, real-life experience kind of way.

As for anything else that can’t be met in the required timeframe for analysis, it might have to be Deleted from the to do list. This is where prioritisation is critical. Do I really need to measure everything possible just because I can?

In these days of being able to measure absolutely everything, we really need to assess if it is worth the amount of work if nothing is significantly different. So maybe I can cull a few experiments or samples and only look at only the most influential without compromising the integrity of the experimental design. Not that I’d actually dispose of those other samples, just in case there was a difference. I would need more a lot more therapy to get over that kind of trauma.

Things are looking much less stressful now with my new and improved planning strategy for the Great Project Conjunction. I might even have time for a coffee.

Telling stories for science

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Humans are great story tellers. Always have been and always will be. No matter what happens. Image: newyorker.com

Humans are story tellers. Some might say that is what separates us from other animals. Well, that and IPods. Particularly since even insects have language and it seems that everyone is using tools. Homo habilis is not as impressive as Homo fictus, the story tellers. Unfortunately this message hasn’t gotten through to scientists.

We all have a story, so writers like to tell us and then don’t give us any ideas of how to go about extracting that story. At some point during science education – I blame the PhD – we scientists lose the ability to tell stories. Conversely we become very adept at stringing facts together and critically analysing details.

But stringing together a story is a complete mystery. This is very problematic when it comes to trying to communicate scientific results to a non-scientific audience. I can spot a spelling mistake or inappropriate apostrophe use a mile off, but figuring out the correct sequence of words to turn an idea into a story is a whole different challenge. And it’s the story that most people will remember, not the details.

Practicing is the best way to get better at anything and this includes telling stories. Just telling friends about something that happened on the weekend is a good start – and, of course, this is yet another reason to engage in communal coffee times.

Even when writing scientific papers, having a story in mind helps get the message across. This simple idea makes the paper flow more logically and is easier to follow than the randomly- strewn-together series of facts that is the alternative.

Knowing what the key message of the paper also makes writing the paper easier. Particularly in nominating what is important to include and needs to be dealt with before publication and what can be reallocated to that wonderful section of ‘future research’. This helps keep on topic and to the point and that’s also good for the reader.

Stories are great for science, both for writing articles for other specialists and for engaging non-specialists. We just need to remember how to tell them.

Getting your message out there

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Communication skills are essential for researchers. Image: thestar.com

Science communication has come a long way since the days of Ivory Tower syndrome. Now researchers have been forced from the lab, blinking uncertainly in the spotlight of online forums, media platforms (social or otherwise) and, in some cases, the blogosphere.

This can only be for the greater good but only if some rules are obeyed. Or, at the very least, understood enough to manipulate them. This is the hardest part of science communication, where we researchers must realise that our findings aren’t inherently interesting to the broader public. This is where we have to put effort into making other people care.

Here are some points to consider for getting your message across:

  1. Remember WIIFM

‘What’s in it for me?’ is the first subconscious thought of any audience. Why should they care? If they don’t care, they will very quickly tune out and your message will be lost. Think about the implications of your results in the broader sense. Maybe there are financial impacts or health effects for example. Focus on this angle and the message is more likely to get through.

  1. What’s the point of interest?

Researchers love data but most people love stories. To make your message stick, find the story in your data. It could be a human interest story about people your research seeks to help. It could have a link, however obscure, to a celebrity or popular TV show. Or, ideally, it has some sort of conflict. Baddies fighting goodies and the goodies win in the end. These sorts of stories are far more interesting and more likely to stick than an all too happy good news story.

  1. Short but strong

In a world of Twitter, key messages need to be as succinct as possible. Every word counts and some words are more powerful than others. Really consider word use to give every word the chance to ram your message home. Don’t use long words when short ones will say the same thing in fewer syllables. Long words only serve to exhaust the audience before they get to your key message. Here are some great examples of how to use better words.

All this effort in making results interesting to people who don’t like data can be exhausting. But considering that it’s usually taxpayers who both fund the research and benefit from it, greater understanding of research outcomes is ultimately better for everyone.

On the brink of greatness

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Research papers can lead to Nobel Prizes, but usually they just lead to more research. Image: http://www.japantimes.co.jp   

One of the key things l love about my job as a research scientist is data. Months of slog work in the lab produces great swathes of data and finally getting a chance to process it and understand what is happening is pure happiness. Particularly when combined with varying concentrations of coffee and chocolate.

This is a particular characteristic of all research scientists, I’m sure. (And yes, I am aware of the irony of proclaiming a love of data and then ignoring any such data to make sweeping generalisations about a large portion of the population. But it’s for the good of making me feel more normal so I’m willing to go with it.)

Processing data is the point at which we can see if all our efforts and hypotheses have made any inroads into the unknown. If they have, either by proving or disproving a hypothesis, it is triumphant.

The process involves turning spreadsheets into works of art, although admittedly a peculiar brand of art. I enjoy turning reams of numbers in to very pretty graphs and, ideally, correlations and trend lines. Constructing those is rewarding on a level that is second only to writing the paper.

A research project isn’t finished until it is published in a peer-reviewed journal. At least, that’s my opinion. I know many scientists who disagree with me on this one. For them, the true joy lies in discovering something new and broadening their knowledge but getting the word out there to the broader communities of scientists and non-scientists is nothing but a chore.

But publications are the bread and butter of research and while the peer-reviewed process might be flawed, it is still the best system for ensuring the majority of science is carried out in a reproducible manner and that the conclusions are matched by the data.

Now, after many, many months of producing data, I have finally had a chance to sit down and process it. And it worked! I have evidence that supports my hypothesis and I have made tiny inroads in hitherto unknown regions of knowledge.

Now all I have to do is write the paper, get the co-authors (my managers and other people who helped produce the data) to read it, get them to agree with how it should be written, get the reviewers to agree that the work is of sufficient quality, incorporating all possible controls and blanks, and voila! Another science paper published. Greatness will be mine! I might just go call the Nobel Prize committee and give them a heads up. I’m sure they’ll want to know.

In reality, even without a Nobel Prize, it’s being able to shine a torch onto new knowledge after months of slog work in the lab is what makes all the effort worthwhile.

Coffee for the good of science

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Coffee breaks help generate a rapport between colleagues and avoid the need to settle disputes with cage matches. Image: mmaweekly.com

 

Locked away in our laboratories, researchers tussle for access to equipment and resources. The overriding sensation is a tense mutual respect. We generally acknowledge each other’s space and equipment but this respect is tenuous and can breakdown in an instant.

Something can go slightly wrong on a project and suddenly next week’s deadline is ominously close and that person needs all the equipment RIGHT NOW. This then encroaches on other people’s deadlines as resources they have booked and planned to use are suddenly inaccessible, and the whole ‘mutual respect’ thing descends into cage matches.

That isn’t quite true. We haven’t got a cage in the lab yet but I’m sure it’s included in next year’s budget.

This is one of the key reasons why research institutes usually have a ‘social club’. It’s a way of forcing people to get to know each other outside the lab in friendly environments and even footing. The same can be said for such activities as ‘lunch’ or ‘coffee breaks’.

Anything that involves the coming together of people – preferably in combination with food and drink intake – can improve relations.

As science becomes more multidisciplinary, being able to get along with other people who are not quite in the same team or have the same objectives is an increasingly important skill. Getting out of the lab and gathering around food with colleagues is a simple but effective method for creating better relationships and building stronger teams.

So go on, put down that pipette and have a coffee. It’s for the good of science.