Ten Signs You Might Be a Biomedical Researcher

It can be tough to fit in; and the socially awkward seem to be oddly drawn into the sciences. Perhaps it's because they had nothing better to do as children than try to be smarter than their classmates to impress them. Of course, that backfired and unleashed all the fury and disdain of their middle school peers. Years later these nerds got jobs. Some work for Google or Genentech, and now they're popular because they have money. And then there's the rest of them (I mean us). We work in the lab. We are on the forefront of medical research. We wear stylish clothes, dressing up every day with our lab coats and playing exciting techno music while we blaze a trail to unraveling the mysteries of life. Well, that's what TV told me. No really, I think biomedical research is awesome, but it can change you. After several years in the lab, you start to notice that you're not like the rest of the world anymore. You've diverged.

I hope this post makes the scientists and the non-scientists smile. If you are a lab geek as well, feel free to add to the list by commenting on the post.

1. If it's not labeled, it's trash.

Lab scientists often become meticulous labelers. Perhaps they already were a little OCD before they joined the lab, but now they have rationale for their psychopathology. See, contrary to popular belief, nearly every liquid in a lab is clear. Colors are mostly for middle school science projects and TV commercials. This means the lab is full of bottles, tubes, and beakers that are entirely indistinguishable in their appearance. Of course, you can always take a good whiff or a little taste to find out what it is, but for some reason that's frowned upon. So with all these clear liquids floating around in containers that look the same, labels are the only hope of knowing what's in there.

If you're a fellow lab researcher, you've met those people that label things in Sanskrit. Both this and the possibility that someone was too lazy to even attempt a label means that whatever was in there is now classified as garbage.

2. Procedures are a strange mixture of well-reasoned scientific thought and mindless superstition.

I'm guessing most of you have seen the beer commercial that says, "It's only weird if it doesn't work". We all laugh; but when you've spent hours and days and weeks and sometimes months trying to get an experiment to work, people get a little desperate. The hypothetical scientist might start grasping at superstition and dabbling in what is affectionately called "lab voodoo".

I know, scientists are supposed to be guided by observation, reason, and logic. Truth. But let's be honest, we know a whole lot less than we like to portray. So with that blissful ignorance under our belt, scientific researchers set out to make things work. About 1% of the time it works immediately and we move on. The rest of the time we start trying to figure out why it utterly failed. "Maybe it's because I put it in the fridge for 4 seconds while I answered my phone that time." That's why it failed. Perhaps it was the lunar phase, or maybe my cells ingested cocaine over the weekend and lost their mind. Not sure. All I know is that superstition plays a vital role in establishing scientific methodology. How do I know that?

Occasionally a scientist will become so desperate that they will swallow their pride and ask another scientist how to do something. It's rare, but when it happens, we exchange protocols and explain which parts of the protocol are indispensable. I cannot count how many times I have followed or watched someone else follow a protocol and saw one of the "key components" get mistakenly left out. Then the experiment still worked perfectly! But when you tell the scientist that gave you the protocol about your success, they deny your experiment worked and label you a heretic. Why? Because in their lab, the urban legend is that you must follow the traditions of the witch doctors (former postdocs) in order to obtain scientific success.

3. You forget your wearing latex/nitrile gloves.

These gloves become a lot like skin. Some people even put lotion on their gloves. No, they don't. Forgetting you're wearing them isn't a big deal unless you start walking into a "non-research" area. You'll get lots of dirty looks. People don't know if you're gloves are pristinely clean and sterile or if you just spilled oncogenic retrovirus all over your hands.

4. "Aliquot" is part of your vocabulary.

Look it up if you don't know what it means. Nothing says lab nerd like aliquoting aliquots.

5. You hate all TV commercials that claim "studies have shown".

It seems impossible, but sometime the same experiment can give you opposite results. This is why "repeatable" is included in the definition of scientific theory. Flukes happen. So when I watch a TV commercial that states something like, "New studies have shown that this product makes your life 73% better than it's ever been before!", I cringe. Here's why:

A. Conflict of interest

Whoever performed the study for this company's product was undoubtedly compensated for their work. Otherwise, why would they have done it? Now there are ways around this, and good companies know how to perform blinded studies to remove bias, but the question should cross your mind. What incentive might be there to skew the results in the favor of selling products?

B. Immeasurable data

If I told you I could give you a pill that would make you love your spouse 58% more, would you buy it? Why not? Perhaps because you're marriage is so blissful that you need no help. Sure. Or maybe it's because you realize that love cannot be measured in a lab. So be skeptical when a product claims to make your hair 86% more vibrant or alleviate your depression by 54%. It's stupid.

C. Marketing Science

Scientists like to know the truth. That's why we build careers around finding answers to questions. Marketing likes to hide or disguise the truth to make you want something. When people use science to sell things, it bothers me a little because I know they are leaving out the "negative data" and "massaging" their data as much as legally allowed in order to make you think you want what they have. Before I buy something, I want to know the good and the bad.

In all fairness, pharmaceutical companies have gone to great lengths to include possible negative side effects of their products in their commercials. I appreciate the candor.

6. You know what the word "concomitant" means.

Another word assignment for you. It's not the same as "simultaneous". Nerds know.

7. Lab coats are only for pictures.

Officially, this is not true; but if it were, it would look something like lab coats stay in a closet until safety inspections occur or a photo shoot is scheduled.

There is another reason people might wear lab coats. They might have a disgusting lab and be protecting their clothes. That's fine. That's what they were invented for.

Another possible reason is that new scientists want to play the part of the "cool scientist" they watched on TV, so they proudly don their lab coats into as many places as they can in hopes they will look smart and sophisticated.

8. You say, "At least we learned something!" almost daily.

Science is a tough business. Failure is the norm. Optimization is the key, and optimism is the only path to survival. We often find ourselves grasping for some shred of positivity, and it typically comes in the form of "learning something". I'm not sure how accurate it is, but recently someone quoted Albert Einstein as saying, "An expert is a person who has made all the possible mistakes in a given field or practice." Every day we fail we become more of an expert.

9. You've considered wallpapering your house with the Qiagen logo.

This company single-handedly changed my life as a scientist. If you don't use Qiagen products, you probably are a bad scientist.

10. You know the difference between a Western, a Northern, and a Southern.

We're not talking about Earth's hemispheres. These are analytical techniques for measuring either protein, RNA/miRNA, or DNA. But like most other scientific lingo, it's completely impossible to decipher the meaning from the term, and there are about ten other names for each of these techniques--just to keep you on your toes.

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