A Day in the Lab: Building epistemic fluency by hobnobbing with a scientist

A word cloud created from the notes and observations I made during my time in the lab.

A word cloud created from the notes and observations I made during my visit in the lab.

A word cloud created from the text of a review paper I wrote on my current research topic.

A word cloud created from the text of a review paper I wrote on my current research topic.

I recently embarked on an exploratory sojourn deep into the heart of the mysterious Laboratory. Having just read a volume on Henrietta Lacks’ intriguing immortal cells [1], I was excited to be there. I entered the land of workbenches, test tubes and pipettes, in awe. There was so much STUFF everywhere. Vial upon vial of liquids of various colours. Expensive, foreign looking equipment and unnameable apparatuses. Cluttered yet sterile. Bright and quiet with only a few people around, each seemingly doing his or her own thing. As I was still trying to take it all in, my unofficial tour began.

The set-up is open concept with three separate labs sharing the same room, each with its own section. To create order, there are sign-up sheets for some equipment but informal communication often occurs with other Labsters (my nickname for people who work in a lab) to indicate when certain equipment will be in use and to let others know if someone “will be hogging it” or if what someone is working on is “time sensitive”. Everyone is in charge of his or her own lab and is responsible for her or his own stuff. My host admits to getting a little “pissed off” with her labmates if there is a mess. “If you made the mess, clean it up!” Literally. Apparently I saw the “hoods” on a good (relatively neat and orderly) day. My host’s tone told me that this was not typically the case.

The lab boss is a molecular biologist. My host, a self-proclaimed molecular biochemist. She wants to go to medical school. Others who do similar work might get Research Assistant or Lab Manager positions. To be a Project Manager a PhD is required and likely a Post Doc. It is really competitive to get faculty positions and one’s own lab. Not surprisingly, if you don’t continue to get funding, the lab shuts down. Et voila. Pull in or perish. In her lab (and similar labs) they do not collaborate with other labs doing related research because of competition over funding, and for getting and publishing results.

With the basic introduction and tour complete, I was ready to get to down to some of the nitty gritty. I was an eager laboratory novice and my ever-generous host was keen to share her wisdom.

My host researches the effects of “knocking out” a specific cell protein on the rate of tumour growth. She is working on breast cancer tumour cells. She hopes her findings will contribute to the development of cancer treatment. When I came for my visit, she had already done the treatment on her cells – hypoxia versus normoxia – and that day she would be extracting the proteins. A lot of prep work is needed before actually starting the experimental protocol. Ice bucket, check. Label and set up test tubes, check. Create fresh buffer solution to burst cells open, check. Prepare scrapers for getting cells off the plate, check. Help burst the cells open using a Vortex Mixer, check. A Vortex Mixer!?!?! Awesome. Put the cells on ice and wait 20 minutes for them to burst so we can collect their contents, check. Needless to say, a lot of her work involves working with pipettes.

She meticulously records everything she does and all of her results in a lab notebook. If something works, she can see why, if something doesn’t work, she can (hopefully) see why. Everything she does must be precise and recorded precisely. To make good use of her time, she updates her lab book when something is “spinning” (for example) or when she has a “nice little chunk of time”.

My host has done her experimental protocols so many times by this point so knows them well. She has a number of experiments on the go simultaneously that she works on as she waits for other steps, such as cell growth, to finish. From preparing proteins to growing cells or running assays, there’s a lot to be done. During her ‘free’ time, she crunches numbers on the computer or reads up on papers to see what she can learn/do to make things work better.

Each Labster mostly just work on his or her own stuff. Each is working on different a “piece of the puzzle”, but they help each other with ideas. My host gets little direct supervision from her supervisor but has ongoing communication with him. After doing all steps of her experimental protocol on her own, she goes over the results of her analysis with her supervisor. She learns mainly through hands on training, and trial and error. Lab scientists attain and adapt different techniques from working in different labs. She follows chemical protocols and tweaks them as appropriate. There are so many protocols (and did I mention the pipettes?). Apart from knowledge of different chemicals and equipment, she has picked up and perfected an array of physical techniques and motor skills. Watching her hold petri dishes and aspirate liquid, it was obvious that she had done these things many times.

In the lab, one is always anticipating and hoping for a certain outcome. A successful day is when you gets the result that you want to see. If my host’s experiment does not work, she feels deflated, and is aware of the extra time she will have to spend to correct it, meanwhile never really knowing why something is not working because she “can’t talk to it”.

She tries to maintain a good work-life balance and avoids being in the lab for twelve hours a day like other labsters she knows. But at the end of the day, she feels pressure for results – “Negative results are results too but nobody publishes bad results” nor do they attract funding. “PhD students have a heavier workload and have to be able to show that they have four years of results by the end of their program.” The invisible college may be hard to see, but it sure was loud and clear.


[1]  Skoot, Rebecca. (2011). The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Large Print Press, 2011.


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