What happens when scientists hang out in herds

There is a cluster of confused-looking scientists standing around our institute coffee machine. It’s broken. “What are we going to do??” we look at each other in mild panic. “I planned my incubation time around our coffee break, but it’s not long enough to go outside and buy some” Katja complains. Narges and I smile. Planning centrifugation steps, incubation periods, and even meetings around lunch and coffee breaks or vice versa is as integral to science as is pipetting and writing manuscripts.

We sit down sans caffeine and start to talk about the quirks and habits of scientists we know. “I regularly freeze down aliquots of food at home to take to work for lunch” I muse, remembering the time a non-scientist friend called me out on that word – aliquot – and told me that is not a normal word to use. “And who hasn’t ‘borrowed’ some dry ice to cool drinks at a party before” Narges smiles. “Some of my friends used to find it terribly amusing that I would talk about ‘feeding my cells’ a lot – they said it was as if I had pets that needed looking-after” I add. And we all know how well (or not) everyone in our tissue culture room can sing, as the radio is always on and you often catch people singing along to Katy Perry full throttle (that person shall remain unnamed). “Who walked in on you this time?” Narges teases me.

“Let’s not forget about our terrible habit of talking science at social gatherings, where we regularly bore to death or drive away non-scientists”

Katja remarks.

“Or the way we can’t watch a single episode of CSI or other ‘science’ in movies without laughing at all the glaring errors and ridiculous misconceptions about science”.

Yup. Definitely a favourite. Yes, hanging out with scientists can be a bit tiring at times, even if you are a scientist yourself and hang out with people from a different field. I, too, get bored when they go on about techniques I’m not familiar with, manuscripts with titles longer than my thesis, and in acronyms that make no sense to me.

But I also know that a lot of my non-science friends are interested in what I do, and some of them love to hear about all the weird and wonderful things we do, like grow bacteria, infect cells, that I happen to know that I have great neutrophils and who had the best macrophages, and that we operate machines that cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, etc. “One time, my colleague Christy and I had some leftover agar plates and started swabbing all sorts of things to see if we could grow bacteria from them. Worryingly, the coffee machine swabs (not from the one in our institute, I hasten to add) grew the most colonies, while our lab phone and a $10 bill were relatively clean.” Narges and Katja pull faces. “Oh god, let’s not check our machine – I’d rather not know!” Agreed. Not everything needs to be scrutinized with the same scientific rigour we apply to our experiments…

With that disturbing thought, we return to our respective experiments. Until the next incubation step that happens to coincide with lunchtime.

Science speak

Christine palmerAbout me: My name is Christine, and I am currently working as a research specialist at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After my undergraduate studies in Oxford, I moved to London for myPhD and first postdoc. After 7 years in this magnificent city, I was ready for an adventure and decided to go to Boston for 2 years for a second postdoc. As love and science made me swap rainy London for alternately deep-frozen or tropical Boston, 2 years turned into 5 (and counting), and I decided to deviate from the traditional academic trajectory to work as a staff scientist (the rather fancy title of my position is research specialist). Most days, I sit with post-docs and other staff scientists over lunch or coffee, and discussion topics range from the inane to career goals and options, our research, new techniques and technology and the like. I would like to share some of those topics with you in this blog. Want to join in? Grab yourself a cup of your favorite caffeinated beverage, read along, and leave comments. You can read my other blog posts here