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Last Saturday at the lab

by Eva Amsen

It’s my last Saturday at the lab.

For years the lab has dominated my entire life. I moved continents to do PhD research. I had to make new friends in a new country. Friends I rarely saw, because I spent nights and evenings in the lab. I’ve been at the lab on a Sunday morning at six, before the streetcars started running. I’ve been there on a Tuesday night at 1:30 AM, almost missing the last subway. I’ve missed parties and dinners, leaving me out of photos and inside jokes.

In return for what?

Constant fear of degraded samples, failure, unverified hypotheses. Taking care of cells whenever they need it. Pressure to perform, where performance is judged by positive results. Always having to think ahead: Do we have the kit I need to do the thing I must do first thing tomorrow in order to have the samples for the experiment that can only be done next Tuesday and at no other time in the next four weeks? Where else do you get that kind of stress? Where else does it really matter if you do a certain task on Sunday night or Monday morning?

But where else do you get so much freedom in making your own schedule? Where else is the work ethic so high that everybody accepts that there is no overpay for inevitable weekends and late hours? Where else do you get paid to learn? Where else do you share a workplace with people of such a wide variety of nationalities and backgrounds?

I thought I’d never miss the frustration of western blots. I thought I’d gladly leave cell culture behind. I was looking forward to the day I’d never have to spin down another Eppendorf tube. I thought the perfect band on a gel was never worth the failed attempts leading up to it. I eagerly counted down the years, months, weeks, and days until I’d finally be free.

And now, on my last Saturday at the lab, I suddenly realize that it’s not just a lab, but a whole way of life that I’m leaving behind.

I fight back a few tears: If they fall in the RNA samples, I’m stuck here another month.


(Written during blog break, on October 25th, at the lab, while waiting for the PCR machine. Change is sometimes hard, but good.)

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Björn Brembs November 7, 2008 - 3:08 PM

Great post! I don’t ever want to leave science and you list some of the best reasons. Good luck!

Eva Amsen November 7, 2008 - 3:41 PM

And here I thought I was listing reasons for leaving =) It’s hard though, and I might come back to some sort of research, but I have to remember how immensely frustrating I found the last 7 years to be. I don’t ever want to do _that_ again. I’d probably be okay with working on a project with other people, with more chance of success. But even then: late nights, no sleep, stupid cells detaching when I just want to wash them…

Stephen Curry November 7, 2008 - 5:02 PM

Great post Eva – I appreciate your candour. Science can certainly be a demanding and frustrating task master – and I’m afraid it doesn’t seem to get easier with age. I very much hope that you have plenty of good memories to take with you too…

steffi suhr November 7, 2008 - 6:03 PM

Eva, thanks for the flashback! Concerning the late nights and weekends and cancelled dinners and parties (and times away on research cruises in my case), I found one of the most impressive things the _understanding_ of my friends who were all in the same situation. You have to cancel last minute? No problem. You feel like crying from exhaustion, or you actually are crying? Go ahead, we understand.
That probably sounds terrible to anyone who hasn’t done it, but it’s part of being part of such a tight-knit community, isn’t it?
P.S. Don’t look back (too much.. a little bit is probably unavoidable!).

Eva Amsen November 7, 2008 - 6:56 PM

A lot (maybe most) of my friends are not scientists at all, and/or haven’t gone to graduate school, so I always got the feeling that they didn’t quite get why I couldn’t just take that night off or reschedule my work.

Maxine Clarke November 7, 2008 - 7:38 PM

Lovely post, Eva.

William Gunn November 8, 2008 - 9:10 PM

That almost brought a tear to my eye! Best of luck, Eva!

Cath Ennis November 10, 2008 - 8:24 PM

Great post. What I miss most about the lab is the independence. There are not many other careers that offer such indepdendence so early on.

Massimo Pinto November 14, 2008 - 8:42 AM

This was marvellous, Eva. I share your sentiments about the scientific life. You have all my sympathy.

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