For the love of pipettes and alchemy

By Diana Chien

One of my friends once asked her dental hygienist how she had chosen her career. With cheerful satisfaction, the hygienist replied, “I like it when things are really clean.”

When I heard this story, I was charmed by a) the hygienist’s honesty and b) the non-grandiosity of her answer. While I’m sure she’s also invested in healthcare, quality of life, and patients’ teeth not falling out, the basic motivation for her day-to-day work remained a very personal, low-level satisfaction in removing schmutz from people’s dentition.

Hearing this story sparked an appreciation in me for the littler motivations in life – for the way that our career choices are often informed by personality tics and hankerings that can seem silly and inconsequential, yet can generate a surprising amount of satisfaction, even delight, when fulfilled by daily work.

When I first had the chance to do work in a molecular biology lab, back in high school, I loved the intricate genetic systems we worked with, the sleek experiments and sharp people. All par for the course for a future grad student.

The part that I haven’t admitted to many people is that I also simply liked doing the labwork. I like playing with gadgets and glassware. I like organizing complex assortments of physical stuff. I like fine motor tasks. (My hobbies include knitting and drawing.) When I was exhausted and overwhelmed by classes in undergrad, doing lab chores could even become an imaginative retreat: making media and cleaning glassware allowed me to pretend that I was a medieval alchemist.

While all of the above remains subordinate to the desire to do good science and make a contribution to my field, my years of life in lab have been made far more agreeable by my recognition that I locate substantial enjoyment simply in working with interesting tools and materials, and in finding opportunities for imaginative play. fact, I’m sure I would have had fewer tense, unhappy days in lab had I reminded myself more often that I’m allowed to enjoy labwork, and to actively seek out opportunities to do so. (This is in the past tense because I’m presently in a long spell of computational work, and hence considering my relationship with labwork at a fond distance.)

A concluding anecdote, because different strokes are for different folks: one of my grad-school friends is a lifelong math-y person, turned computational biologist. Last year, he completed his first-ever internship in a wet lab. Of his experience, he offered the following summation: “I learned how to pipette this summer. I hated it.”

Image credit: Arturas Slapsys

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2 Comments

  1. I can safely say that part of why I like my mostly-computation projects is that I get to learn new programming languages, write adorable wee Ruby scripts, and chain together unix commands to process my data tables. You would think that rearranging ephemeral bits would be disappointing, but no.

  2. 1. Yes, let’s love the day-to-day! This reminds me of my favorite comic series, which has the motto: “today is always the most enjoyable day.” The series itself describes seemingly un-extraordinary life events (household chores, errands, etc.), but does so in a charming and inquisitive way. Essentially, it’s about appreciating all the “small” things that we do.

    2. Your post also reminds me of something I heard from a friend. She’s making an effort to respond creatively when a new acquaintance asks her “what do you do”. Instead of letting “I’m a grad student” (and whatever that means to someone) define her, she’s using descriptors that reflect the parts of her work that really resonate with her. For example, “I’m a pipette alchemist !”

    3. We should take a photo of you, replicating the image that Tony chose for this post.

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