Ah, science. You glorious, shining beacon of hope, guiding us through the darkness of ignorance into the light of knowledge. You, who has pushed past the limits of our understanding of the universe, who has enabled us to perceive things our senses can´t grasp, who has given us the key to become the masters the planet. Ah, science… you little bastard.
On occasion, and these occasions occur more frequently than not, I have to almost physically restrain myself from punching walls, hitting my head against equipment that I couldn´t even pay off if I lived to be a thousand years, and abuse uncooperative computers. All because of science. Because, as most people have started to come to realize, science is in fact not the objective, rational, cold-hearted thing we would like it to be. It´s mental abuse in the form of incoherent strings of data, it´s physical self-abuse in the form of 16hr work days without even a bathroom break because the moment you leave, the cells/mice/computers will start gushing out the results you´ve been waiting for all day. It can be mind numbingly boring, watching an oven cool off ever so slowly, subject yourself to hours of gel production or just going through the 20th edition of your paper draft, changing the same sentence for the 20th time, because your supervisor still isn´t satisfied by the – in your opinion correct – placement of author names. Thanks to a number of PhD help hotlines and comics featuring the pain and the suffering of helpless students in academia, word has gotten out fairly quickly on how punishing academia really can be while granting little more enough financial stability than to enable you to afford a packet of ramen noodles a day. It´s a tough world out there, at least in academia.
And yet, so many hopeful, bright people start their undergrad, grad, PhD or even – if they´ve had a very, very good, fortunate and absolutely fantastic (as in fantasy, ´cause that just don´t happen) life so far, PostDoc – with little understanding of what´s in store for them. The real reason your peers put on that wry, forced grin, whenever the energetic, bushytailed newbie is around, practically ablaze with all that motivation, is not because they´re arrogant and look down on newcomers. It´s because they´ve stared into the abyss and the abyss has stared back at them. They´ve been through the hell of broken equipment, funky cells who die off the day you need them most, rejected papers, unruly animal models going off on exploration sprees during the institutes annual quality check, and last but not least, long hours in which there is little left to do but question your life choices. This blog entry is for all of you who have reached that stage and are currently planning to smash whatever very expensive machine you are working on at the moment into a billion little pieces. Today we are going to focus on how not to let all the rage show.
First of all: breathing. It´s something we do every day, every hour, so theoretically, despite the fact that you´re in a lab where nothing has ever gone right, this shouldn´t end with failure. If so, please seek out help from colleagues and a doctor immediately. If you´re blood is pumping and you´re about to shred the proof-read draft you´ve been working on, take a deep breath. Breathe in so deeply you turn into a bit of an airhead, that´s not unusual in academia, you´ve probably seen enough of them around by now. Exhale slowly. Put the paper, machine, computer, frightened knock-out mouse, that doesn´t know that it should be cancer-ridden, but curiously isn´t, down. There we go. First step complete. Feeling better?
If not, follow the second step. You´re probably still feeling like you want to murder someone. Well, tearing out the insides of a helpless undergrad student might make you feel better for the moment, but generally isn´t seen as socially acceptable. Even if they´re the ones who just put all of the protein samples you´ve purified and collected the past month into a thermomixer and set the temperature to a comfy 95°C. (No, just because the rooms in your old uni are warmer, doesn´t mean you´ve got to boil the samples! Room temperature, it has been agreed on, is the same all over the world!) If this is the case remind yourself of your own blunders. Even just ten seconds of that is a very humbling experience. I cringe at the memory of me sneezing in a RNA-free room, accidentally leaving a hundred dollars worth of antibodies out on the bench during a warm summer night by themselves, and a couple of other “Oh – shit” moments I´m to ashamed to list here. If that doesn´t get you off your high horse, you´re either an amazing scientist or you´re abilities of self-delusions are admirable.
If, on the other hand, it´s the equipment, experiment, unruly living model that´s acting up, keep chanting the mantra: “It´s always the human that´s at fault, I´ve got to get back to troubleshooting and this computer doesn´t deserve to be thrown out of the window of a twelve story building…” Remember, the one who set the equipment up, was most likely yourself, so keep in mind when you´re screaming at a program that just won´t do as it should, you´re most likely screaming at yourself for doing a shit job and no one likes a crazy who screams at and for themselves, so give yourself a break. You won´t solve the problem when you´re seething with rage, you´ll probably solve it while you´ve put your mind to rest, poring over lecture notes and occupying yourself with other troubles for the moment.
Which brings me to the third step. Let it go. In science, things go wrong. Terribly so. Sometimes the issue seems to be so incomprehensible, that the only explanation is that the reason your cells died is because they were able to smell your new shampoo and quite frankly hated it, so they democratically voted for spontaneous mass suicide over enduring it for just another night so you could finish your experiment on time. That is very unfortunate, especially if you´re working against a deadline. But raging, seething, screaming, hair – pulling and foaming at the mouth isn´t going to solve your problem. Don´t let all the anger show. Computers can smell frustration, as well as dogs smell the sweaty smell of fear and are inclined to reboot, make updates or freeze the more frustrated you are. So don´t be the person with Tourette in the lab. The poor mice and flies have ears, you know! We all get angry. Try not to be – but if you can´t let it go… At least don´t let it show.