Thursday, February 26, 2009


I'm doing a volunteer work experience thingy, to keep me out of trouble. It's actually quite relevant to my career goals, so I'm lucky to be able to do it. At a meeting/mini-conference I was attending this week, I got chatting to a woman who said she was thinking of getting out of lab-based science. I asked her why, and she said it was because she was sick of working alone all the time, and wanted a job where she'd have more interaction with people.

Well. I was shocked.

I know that there's the stereotype of the mad scientist, all alone in his lab with his beakers and multi-coloured fluids, but, honestly, that's never been my experience. My experience is that scientists work in groups, usually small groups. I almost always had one or a few other people on a project with me, sharing ideas, hashing out problems, delegating someone to go out to get food while others watched the experiment. Even if, for some reason, I was working at an experiment by myself, I was always in a lab full of other people, or steps away from an office full of colleagues and workmates. I've never felt lonely in lab.

At one lab I was in, there was a guy who much preferred to work by himself. He was the sole user of a specific set-up and he didn't like having to work with others. (Now, mind you, this set-up was still in a lab with lots of other experiments, with people working and going in and out all the time.) It meant no one was ever sure exactly what he was doing; it meant he didn't share expertise; it meant those unfortunate new students or new workers who were assigned to work with him went on to other experiments pretty quickly. Among the other scientists, this person wasn't considered a great addition to the lab.

I find it hard to imagine working all by yourself, all the time, in science. Now, my experience is in chemistry/physics, so maybe it happens more often in other disciplines or sub-disciplines?


LilKnitter said...

I always find it interesting to read about your life in science, since I am a consumate non-science person (philosophy and religion float my boat. Perhaps that explains the shock my TNG geekiness elicited; no one expects a humanities girl to be a Trekie). And it's equally interesting to see how 'research' (I use quotation marks because I'm sure there are the occasional hard-scientists who would object to what people like I do being called research) can differ so widely as well. Humanities research is decidedly independent work, locked up in libraries, poring over books, scribbling on notepads.

Woolly Stuff said...

I reviewed a book once called "Mad, bad and dangerous" about the image of The Scientist. It was pretty interesting. Here's the link to the review:

Especially interesting was the bit where they asked young children to draw what they thought a scientist looked like...