Monday, March 15, 2010

99% perspiration

Science, as so many things, is 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration. Or so they tell us, and we tell our students and so on. There is a kernel of truth in this saying, as with all the similar sayings we tell ourselves, you know the ones, the ones we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better when all the evidence is to the contrary; "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger", "no pain no gain" and my personal anti- favourite "it's all downhill to the finish".

Science took a decidedly literal turn of truth the other day, as you can see from the picture above. Since we worked out the experimental conditions we decided to do a little study, so I've been doing a series of ten hour experiments to get the data. This is another trusim in science, that one will spend a majority of the project getting the assay to work and then spend the final few percent of the project in a orgy of activity getting the data. To make the day seem quicker, or so at least I could sneak out for a run during the final 2hr step while the sun was still up, I took to heading into the lab after the morning spin, still in my cycling gear, to get the first three-hour step started.

Hence the sight of yours truely in a below-the-knee "mad scientist" style labcoat, bare shins (still with a hint of tan; I mean who needs a week on the beach in Florida/Mexico/Cuba/Dominican? I'm still rocking last years!) and silver MTB shoes. I'm not sure what this image conjurers up. Metrosexual? Perhaps, but the word is not always understood in cyclists' circles; Andy Schleck called Fillipo Pozzatto "metrosexual" last week and Pippo had a complete melt-down. Well it's not as if Pippo shaves his legs, has long blonde curly locks and is generally really well turned out, even after a long wet rainy stage in the Tour of the Mining Valleys, oh wait a minute.... I'm not even sure if it meets health-and-safety code. We (blokes) have always been banned from wearing shorts in the lab "on safety grounds" yet our XX homozygous colleagues have always been allowed to wear skirts, presumably on the basis that their bare legs showing under the lab-coat were somehow immune to spills whereas male ones were not. At least my shoes were 1) not open toed and 2) kOS legal with recessed cleats. I may be a few molecules short of Avagadros number but teetering across the lab doing anything in Look cleats seems ridiculously foolhardy!

In the midst this orgy of data collecting I've also been helping out a few different groups with techniques and perhaps it is because I spent the best part of the oughties locked in a windowless basement research aquaria with nothing but fish to talk to (and believe me, salmon are not the worlds best conversationalists) but I've been very surprised with the range of attitudes towards practical bench-science in some of those I've been working with recently.

There are some who take what you do with absolute aplomb, after all, you're the expert so if you do it it must be right. Like setting the stack of paper towels at the back of the bench on fire is a required step in aseptic technique! Gratifying indeed to be thought of in such high terms, but it always makes me feel more of a muppet when I do things wrong.

Then there are the people who expect you to have the answer to absolutely everything, at once, right from the get-go; even when you're parachuting in as an advisor and have literally just hit the ground. These people are subtly different from the first ones. They are also the ones likely to get stunned into inactivity by the cycle of "we need to optimize pH before we optimize concentration, need to optimize concentration before we optimize time, need to optimize time before we optimize temperature, need to optimize temperature before we optimize pH".

Finally, there are those who don't mind getting dirty, don't mind that sometimes bucket-chemistry is OK, those who realise that yes, we are making this up as we go along and no, we don't quite know if it will work the way we expect but we have an appropriate number of controls so why not put on our safety glasses, get behind the blast-proof screen and close the switch and see what happens!

I suppose in the classical world, the requisite metaphor would be Frankenstein, but really it's more like Mythbusters with peer-review!

Regardless whether it's Shelley or Savage, I like working with the latter group. There's a time for being nit-picky and weighing things out to insane decimal places and there's a time for just jumping in, trying for a result, any result, and then just spiral in from there. To me it gets to the heart of what research is, it's suck-it-and-see empiricism, it's the unabashed curiosity of trying something that's never quite been done before. Sure, we can use the microbalance and the tiny spatula later, but right now we need to make ten litres of the stuff; I think the shovel should do nicely for starters!

I flatter myself to think I've been around the scene for a while and seen commonalities between successful scientists. Travel, preferentially international travel is the big one, the Department Head will never be a person who arrived at Dodgy U as an 18 year-old undergrad and somehow managed to do their MSc, PhD and post-doc there as well. Admittedly I don't follow this one out, but every data set has an outlier. Luck is a big part too. Napoleon supposedly said he didn't care if his generals were any good, but were they lucky? We all know great people who sank without trace on doomed projects, and equally talented colleagues who were in the right place at the right time with the right molecule and are now on first-name terms with the editor at Nature.

For a final part, after travel and luck? The ability and willingness to take risks. No, it mightn't not work, but we won't know unless we try. Research doesn't come with a cast-iron guarantee that it will actually work. Considering scientists are on the whole, a bunch of obsessed type-A, goal oriented, structured individuals, this is actually a shocking admission of uncertainty into our lives! No wonder we're all nuts (a touch of Keat's negative capability perhaps) . So perhaps the final commonality between successful scientist is having that quote by Einstein photocopied and stuck up on the fridge or the fume-hood, you know the one "if we knew what we were doing, it would not be called research would it"

Needless to say, whereas that particular quote might be in the lab (on the side of the fume-hood no less) I didn't put it there; it belongs to the former lab occupant who now has a corner office in the admin building. 'nuff said!


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