Category Archives: Scientific Sheep

Evicting my laptop from lab

I recently decided to shake up my lab routine and schedule in an effort to enhance my productivity. Many of my lab mates live in apartments right across the street from lab and spend long “hours” in lab but aren’t particularly engaged with their work or busy during that time. My commute is more like 30-40 minutes, and perhaps more importantly, I’ve been wanting to get out of some of the bad habits I developed near the end of my PhD – namely, spending entirely too much time in lab unfocused and letting the rest of my life and work suffer for it. At the end of my grad work it seemed like I was going to be there all the time no matter what I did, but I think trying to get work done efficiently and go on to get other things in life done is a much better lifestyle for me.

To start, I spent some time reflecting on the periods of time I felt most productive in the lab. Certainly those final pushes to the PhD felt productive, but those were narrow in focus with specific experimental goals. These days I am balancing a far wider palette of experimental goals and day to day tasks. It led me to think about the early years, when I was a super-productive undergraduate researcher, getting research done and doing lab management part-time while taking a full load of classes.

I started working in the lab in the summer of 2003 as an undergraduate. Looking back, this was an interesting moment to start lab work in terms of the role of computer in the laboratory.

When I was an undergrad, laptops were heavy things, phones were dumb, and texting was not a thing anyone I knew did. You didn’t haul your laptop from class to class. We had two lab computers that everyone shared and it was understood that you were to use those first and foremost for lab tasks. If you were just surfing the Internet, anyone with a science task to do had every right to kick you off. I definitely used the computer as a tool to find papers and answer lab questions but didn’t spend much time on it in lab. If I had spare time between experiments I would be making a buffer or prepping for the next experiment or restocking tips or otherwise organizing our laboratory space.

In graduate school, however, it was a different story. In two of the three labs I rotated in, everyone brought their laptops to work and immediately set them up on their desks first thing every morning. In the third lab, each member had a lab-issued iMac on his or her desk waiting on them. With a computer at my desk, especially my computer on my desk, the nature of downtime in lab started to take a shift. Certainly it would be possible to look up papers in those free moments. But instead of making buffers, I found myself checking Facebook (who hasn’t?).

When I moved to my postdoc, I found an odd mix of the same – a few lab computers that were shared for explicitly lab tasks, but everyone bringing their own netbooks and laptops and smartphones to surf the internet with.

At some point, I decided that having a computer there at the ready was doing more harm than good for my laboratory achievements. I figured that evicting my laptop from the lab and only using the lab computer for most tasks could help me focus on the work at hand and completing it in the most efficient manner possible, not in a manner that favors long sedentary periods at my desk.

I have been fairly satisfied with the experiment three weeks in. I find that I spend less time on the Internet overall – the websites that were tempting must-reads in between Western blot washes don’t have the same allure when I’m at home and could be doing other things. I do use my smart phone to look up information quickly and to keep up with the happenings of the universe via Twitter (and listening to NPR via the Public Radio Tuner). I still look for and read papers but it is a more concentrated search.

Moreover, I find myself getting a lot more done in lab. I’m reclaiming those tiny snippets of time that I was freely giving up to the internet with the small things that let one stack experiments in an efficient manner. I’m not perfect at it every day but I feel more productive and have the completed to-do lists and data attempts to prove it. The day the data attempts turn into publishable data, I will brand this experiment a grand success, but with me and my advisor being happier with my progress, I may already be at great success levels.

If I were starting a lab tomorrow, I think I’d encourage communal computers for accountability purposes in most situations. This is obviously an option best for scientists who have an experimental, not computational approach, but unplugging from the Internet if possible could attain similar results. Clearly qualifying examinations, dissertation writing, paper writing, and grant writing are exceptionally computing-heavy times where an individual really needs their own electronic space. For these situations, I’ve found the applications Freedom and Anti-Social to be helpful in attaining similar goals of distraction-free work. Freedom blocks Internet access entirely while anti-social lets you block specific distracting domains (,,,,, whatever suits you) for a specific period of time.

I do wonder about the current trends in lab design – a bench and a desk with a computer on it for every scientist – and how these trends influence the way we work. I don’t think that design trend is changing anytime soon but I do think it is worth examining our habits of work – first thing, get in and set up the computer or start the first experiment? – to help keep the communication and analysis tools we have at hand from impeding the work we set out to do in the first place.

Tagged , ,

Scientists on TV and in the Movies

In my last year of grad school, I listened to this NY Academy of Sciences Science & the City Podcast called “Celluloid Science: Humanizing Life in the Lab.” I’ve taken increased note of scientists in television and movies since then, and honestly – it’s hard to find a cool scientist on TV. I think the winner right now may be Lanie Parrish on ABC’s Castle, as a sassy, sensual, confident medical examiner who is seen inside and outside of the morgue and enjoys really normal interactions with the other characters. She has romantic relationships, she puts on dresses to go to social events and parties, she wears a classy suit on the scene. She’s insightful and good at her job. In the earlier seasons, there was a male medical examiner who was awkward and odd, that the other characters were uncomfortable around. The friendly ME is a much-welcome breath of fresh air for scientists on television.

The Sci & the City podcast pointed out there have been no scientific screwball comedies. There have been days in the lab where I felt my life was headed that way. The fact that David in Bringing Up Baby is a paleontologist is a key plot point (and Cary Grant is quite the dashing awkward scientist) in that classic, but I’m still mulling over the potential for a great scientific screwball comedy.

More recently, I finally got around to watching Losing Control, a movie I had been meaning to see for a while. It focuses on a graduate student who has become mired in the attempt to finish graduate work, and she feels it is holding her back from all the other parts of her life. It was a cute romantic comedy, a little predictable in some ways but I think that’s almost to be expected of the genre. If anything, the great thing is that science is accepted as a normal default mode – even if a bit obsessive and quirky – the way most other movies treat being any other profession.

Tagged ,


The last story in a recently re-broadcast episode of This American Life, about the college student, brought me to tears.  As a first generation college student – yes, yes, ten thousand times, yes.  It’s hard to be “the one” who leaves.  “The one” who goes on to grad school.  And sometimes, it really does feel like you’ve been duped into buying into a dream, and if you had never been duped, you would be just like everyone else and you would really be happy.  For every time I’ve ever wondered if I was a fool to walk this road, I’ve had a thousand moments of bliss where I can’t imagine ever picking another for myself.

But I don’t know what I want to be!

All we ask of American children is to have their lives planned out entirely before they have begun.

As an adult, it seems that the only thing anyone ever asks is “What do you do?”, which is a natural outflow of the question that stalks the collegiate, “what is your major?”  In high school, it was “Where do you want to go to college?  What do you want to do?”  But the pressure starts long before any serious decision-making begins.

As early as Kindergarten, I dreaded the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I’ve always hated coming up with an answer.  It presupposes several precepts I entirely oppose.

We provide children with a simple set of possible answers to this question, all of which imply that you are what you do for a living. What “you want to be” is not equivalent with career.  We tell children that you can be a fireman, policeman, astronaut, teacher, doctor, dentist, or nurse.  Never mind that when we look around our society, most people hold jobs outside of this set of careers.  No one mentions sanitation workers. No one extols the accountants.   No one talks about mechanics.  No one mentions researchers or sales associates.

Naturally then, children are shocked, as I remember being, at seeing the librarian at the grocery store.  It’s inconceivable that my teacher has a life outside of the school, much less the need to procure food.  Her identity is “teacher” and therefore her life must also be so.

The real reason I dreaded this question at age five, however, was not on high-minded philosophical grounds.  I dreaded this question because the answer to it was “I do not know.”  And at age five, the only thing I did know was that I always wanted to be the person who knew, who had the right answer, and who was generally thought to be never wrong.

We don’t tell five-year-olds that college faculty (or being the next  Martha Stewart) is a career option.

I never felt satisfied with the list of career choices presented to me.  In the second grade, I started telling people that I wanted to be a poet and work for the postal service, because I wanted to write and I enjoyed sorting things.  I  apparently had the good sense, even then, to realize you can’t make a living writing poetry, and this was more than fifteen years before Starbucks reached my hometown, so barista was not an option young me would have known.

It quickly became apparent that this was not an acceptable answer to my parents, my teachers, and my peers.  So I faked it.  I think I went through a “I want to be a lawyer” phase, and then in early middle school I avoided the question entirely.

Halfway through middle school, I went away to geek camp for three weeks, and took American Theater.  My instructor was finishing up her PhD at Penn, and hence came my introduction to the idea of graduate school as a career path.  I knew immediately that I wanted to keep going to school for as long as possible, and knew from the age of 14 that the PhD lay before me.  In what, I didn’t know, but I understood that you could keep learning and studying, and there was little else I enjoyed more.

Even in high school, the career talk was a source of constant anxiety.  In home ec, we wrote letters to colleges asking for information.  I decided to request information about journalism and public relations, as I still enjoyed writing.  I later decided that I should go with math and science, as I seemed to be good at it.  Biology was more fun than chemistry, so biology it was.

I vividly remember the day we did a bacterial transformation experiment in AP Biology.  I recall looking at my plate of bacterial colonies for blue-white screening and thinking how amazing it was that we did this experiment and it worked.  We changed the color of the colonies.  We engineered DNA.  I loved it, and I’m still not entirely certain why.

Still, had college applications not asked me for a major, I probably would have been content to explore an endless variety of courses for forever.  Thankfully (maybe?), I went to NC State, where I declared a major from day one, but also delcared a second major from day two.

Over the years, I’ve answered endless questions about why I have a BA and a BS, why I spent five years in undergrad, or why I did a degree in the humanities.  I’m glad I did it.  I think there’s a part of me that needs things other than science to stay sane, that needs to write and read and think.  That part of me has been threatened, choked, nearly suffocated over the years.

But it’s back.

I suppose it’s a good thing – after all, reading and writing and thinking critically are important skills in all of life.  But more than that, the unilateral assumptions about career that were foisted upon me when I was younger keep fading further and further away.

Let’s say I stay in science.  I can’t see myself at the bench forever, so perhaps I could lead a research group at an institute, or even better, as a primary investigator on the faculty at a university.  I love the university, and I love education.

I think teaching would be great.  While I enjoy “imparting knowledge” mode, what I really love is leading people into the place where they understand that they can learn and can engage the scientific process.  I like to see bigger lightswitches than just xyz material turn on.

Dr. Caldwell was right.  Young people don’t know just how magnificent they might be.  The thing is to help them push away their internal limits, the assumptions they have absorbed from their environments, so that they can even just try to find the ceiling of their capabilities.  It’s teaching a man to fish instead of feeding them fish.

So let’s say I didn’t want to stay directly in science. This love of education, of seeing boundaries overcome, could translate well into academic administration.  Maybe I’d make a good dean someday.

Of course, I could veer even further off traditional career paths.  Policy could be thrilling.  Consulting for a law firm?  Something new all the time.

I’m 27 years old and I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up.  But I think I’ve learned what I want to be.

I want to learn every day as much as I teach every day.
I want to be thoughtful.
I want to engage in my community and the world around me.
I want to serve, and lead through my service.
I want to create sustainable plans.
I want to embrace an active lifestyle.
I want to run til I’m old.
I want to respect the dignity of those around me.
I want to respect my own dignity and needs.
I want to love myself and the flaws in myself.
I want to encourage those around me.
I want to love those around me and engage them in a positive manner.
I want to let go of perfectionism and embrace the imperfections.
I want to make a difference.
I want to inspire others to make a difference.
I want to be the kind of person who kayaks in the morning and throws a cocktail party the same night.

Knowing what I want to be and knowing how to go about being it are two entirely different questions, neither answered by

“what do you want to be when you grow up?”