Meet the scientists

If you work in a research lab you’ll encounter plenty of different characters. Surprisingly they’re not all geeks, as the Big Bang Theory would like us to believe, and they’re also not (all) insane, disheveled-looking introverts with genetically engineered rats who want to take over the world. A few of the typical personality “archetypes” of scientists are portrayed here, some more flamboyant and memorable than others.

Principal investigators haven’t been included and the list is of course not meant to be exhaustive. Or taken too seriously. All characters are entirely a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons living or dead is most likely coincidental. In case you’re wondering about the genders I’ve picked: I’ve simply alternated because yes, there are plenty of women in the lab and they’re surely not all like Bernadette or Amy.

The Authority

Without a doubt the most important person in the lab. Whenever there is confusion or doubt about which scientific method to use, the meaning of a peculiar result, the future direction of one’s project, the relevance of someone’s work in the scientific community, career advice, the purpose of life… the Authority will be consulted. And she will have an answer. The Authority is most likely the only person in the lab who does not have to fight for attention (it doesn’t matter how big the lab is). She does not necessarily have to speak up at lab meetings. But if she does, people listen. And the advice will be followed by the strictest of terms. She is generous with it and helps where she can. The Authority obviously has a lot of experience in research, either because she’s been an active scientist for a long time or because she’s simply a workaholic and accumulates her hours on extra weekend and late-night shifts. Ah well, and I almost forgot: although she might not ever mention it, the Authority has a strong track record of publications in high-tier journals. No-one ever said credibility is easy to earn, right?

The Anarchist

Piles of pipette tips spread out in undecipherable patterns all over the lab bench and floor underneath. A boiling sea of liquid nitrogen in the sink. Splashes of reagents all over the place, in various colours and smells, presumably hazardous. Tissue samples from various organs and species (human?!), at best preserved in tubes with Formalin or Ethanol, at worst ending up on your lab coat. Wherever the Anarchist goes destruction follows in his path. His lab neighbours need nerves of steel or a capable psychiatrist. Preferably both. If anything goes missing from your bench you will almost certainly find it at his place, on occasion also broken, deformed or decorated with the latest histological stain.

The Anarchist does things his way. He is often – though not always – quite clever and innovative and churns out new ideas on a daily basis. The practical aspects, however, might not conform to the standard protocol or lab tradition. He’ll get things done – courtesy of generous colleagues who are making sure the lab can be used again after he’s through with it.

The Coming-of-age genius

This typically applies to many PhD students who join a lab after being drawn to science for various absurd or misguided reasons (for example curiosity about how things work… sigh). They flock to the lab with CVs crammed full of evidence for extracurricular lab work they’ve done, amazing achievements in lab placements and obviously fantastic grades. But they have no clue. So there they all are, excited on their first day, happy to be around like-minded science geniuses in the invigorating atmosphere of excellence, happy to grab a pipette and start contributing to the wealth of human knowledge and…. and then they remain silent for a full three years without any data to show.

It’s a tough life, isn’t it? Failing experiments, crushed hopes, dreams shattered to pieces. I’ve only met a few graduate students who managed to escape this phase by jumping on the PostDoc bandwagon and teaming up with someone who’s conveniently sorting out the Nature paper for you. But for our heroic model PhD who has to do it all by herself: in many cases the final year suddenly comes with a wondrous, unexpected change. The PhD student starts speaking up at lab meetings, has data to discuss and results to explain and somehow… suddenly there’s a paper in preparation. Sounds too good to be true? OK, I admit, that one was a lie. The Coming-of-age genius doesn’t exist, I just made her up during my PhD years to be able to fall asleep at night again.

The Enthusiast

Give him an opportunity to speak and he’ll get you hooked on science. A few minutes into his fiery speech and no doubts will remain that science is the only thing that can save the world. He’ll have an explanation for everything – hardly ever in-depth of course, not enough time… – and a spectacular record of monumental achievements which he can usually somehow link to himself. Nothing is impossible for him. The only thing exceeding his passionate optimism is probably his lack of understanding what available methods can realistically achieve in a time-frame that does not extent the life-span of the researcher. And how could he? A hallmark of the Enthusiast is that he doesn’t usually spend a lot of time in the lab.

He’s ideal as a PI – since the group leaders are not supposed to show up in the lab anyway and need a talent for schmoozing funding agencies to award them grants – but very much undesirable as a PostDoc or PhD student (“the workforce”). In fact, the latter are usually in direct contradiction with the Enthusiast’s values and views (“we’ll quickly create a new mouse model for pancreatic cancer and then we should have our cure within a few months”). This probably also explains why life in the lab is often so devoid of… well, enthusiasm.

The Entertainer

Her only rule is to never talk about science during work unless it is absolutely necessary. That doesn’t mean she’s not working – actually she’s spending a considerable amount of time in the lab because that’s her main audience. It just means that besides her science duties she also has a life outside the lab and she’s generous enough to share it with the people around her (who don’t). She’s a great asset for every lab to have: she’ll make you sing and dance on the corridor, she’s always up for a joke or a chat and she’s a natural enhancer of the otherwise gloomy lab atmosphere. Her lab meetings are colourful presentations, complemented by expressive images, humorous cartoons and witty remarks. No focus problems there. She’ll have the attention of her audience all the way through and her results will probably still be discussed during lunch time because even the half-awake Coming-of-age genius understood what her project is about. Even if the data she shows have been the same for months, the entertainment factor will more than make up for it. After all, she’s realised the one big truth in science: in a field where all achievements usually involve highly complex processes and a lot of mechanistic detail, it’s all in the show. And if anything, scientists are masters in judging the quality of a show/presentation. They might not all be born entertainers but they will – all the more – appreciate someone who is.

The Prodigy

The Prodigy’s arrival in the lab will be heralded by the PI months in advance. In anticipation of all the miracles on the experimental front that will soon follow, the PI will go through great lengths to assure everyone how much the lab will benefit. In the process, people from the lower hierarchy ranks who have not yet contributed much to the group’s fame (meaning: no Nature paper on the horizon) will probably develop a feeling of underachievement and/or an acute resurgence of imposter syndrome. Inevitably, the Prodigy will also originate from a lab of world-fame with a previous PI who is usually referred to as either “the god of [insert field of interest]” or as “you know who” (meaning he/she is dreaded competition).

All this will not make his advent in the lab a tension-free one but he’s probably used to high expectations anyway, having been handed from one elite institute or university to the next. If the Prodigy lives up to his reputation he will then quickly advance to the position of Golden Boy (if anyone here is familiar with the PhD comics), however, if he “fails” in the eyes of the PI (meaning: no Nature paper on the horizon or gasp!… he leaves academia) the fall from grace can be quite daunting to watch. Granted, in most cases the Prodigy does have the intelligence and qualifications he’s credited with (you don’t get scholarships and awards for nothing) and he’ll do well wherever he goes.

The Communicator

Similarly to the Enthusiast, the communicator just loves talking about science. She might be a bit more down to earth, though, when it comes to the realities of lab work. Which is why she prefers not to spend too much time there and rather focuses on the real scientific pearls. An understandable response. Who would ever want to limit themselves by the narrow scope of one’s own project if they can marvel at the whole wonderful world of science, all the fascinating research that’s going on elsewhere in labs spread all over the world. For all of the above reasons, the communicator is sadly very prone to losing herself in the joys of a job with less bench-affinity and might eventually leave academia all-together to write for the New York Times or start a TV show with Brian Cox (ha!). Surely a loss for science, but – oh what a gain for the tax payers, who will finally get an eloquent explanation of what their money was accomplishing all these years without them noticing.

The Eternal PostDoc

No-one really knows how many PostDocs he has done but judging from the lines on his face there must have been quite a few. Admittedly, the Eternal PostDoc is becoming a rarity as fellowships for subsequent PostDoc positions are harder to come by these days and people eventually change into permanent positions outside the lab. Which is a shame because the Eternal PostDoc is one of the few lab characters who actually enjoy doing the intense manual labour called research and who are good at it. He can sometimes be identical with the Authority, owing to his impressive methodological experience, although he might not be the best science career adviser in that case. He’s happy to stay where he is – in the workforce – without advancing to the next level, the PI stage, which he doesn’t fancy due to it’s administrative responsibilities and lack of hands-on research work. He’s no schmoozer and he’s no politician. He’s a true scientist – in the most literal sense as someone who practices the fine arts of science (see etymology) – and there really aren’t that many.

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