Sunday, July 29, 2012

Laboratory Eden

Recently I worked in my lab for the first time in a long while. I found my lost car key on one of the benches. The same key that my husband replaced for me in honor of our 15th wedding anniversary.

15 years ago I was eager and impatient to run my own laboratory. I had worked in others' laboratories since undergraduate days, and believed I could do it better. I learned to “play” in a lab early from my biomedical engineer father who would leave me alone for hours with microscopes, circuit boards, power supplies, oscilliscopes, an old EKG machine & treadmill, and other delights to take apart and put back together.

During my early years of setting up my own lab, my PhD advisor would regale me with his vision of centralized labs—“playgrounds” for scientists, staffed with technicians and other scientists. At the time I had too much invested in my own vision of my own lab and what I wanted to accomplish that I was unable to truly listen to his idea.

But now I would love to be able to do I want what (um….I mean have my students do what they want) in an externally managed laboratory playground environment, with technical support.

In fact, we do many of our experiments at synchrotron beamlines, which are shared community resources to perform experiments that many of us in the field have in common. It is far more efficient to have staffed, group facilities to perform these experiments. However, beamtime is expensive, and the requirement for user-friendliness often implies that experiments be engineered for existing capabilities, rather than the other way around. So these shared facilities are not quite the “playground” that my PhD advisor envisioned.

It is a false dichotomy to ask “centralized facilities? vs. individual labs?”  What I’d like best is unlimited access to a combination of (1) user facilities specialized for specific experiments (e.g. microscopes, beamlines), (2) my own laboratory in which students, post-docs and I have free reign to try new things and make mistakes and develop new experimental techniques to address our questions. The problem is (1) is usually too specialized and inflexible and therefore not the place for innovation and (2) often operates on a shoestring, necessarily limited, and can be isolating and lonely.

Enter the mythological Laboratory Eden: well-managed, staffed with knowledgeable helpful people, equipment-rich, scientist-playground where people come, work, build, talk, laugh, share their ideas with each other, listen, learn, and love (science).

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