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Spec Tech: The Lone Scientist (Not)

June 24, 2010

Last month I discovered this old paperback on a bookshelf in my parents’ house: SCIENCE AND THE MORAL LIFE by Max Otto, a posthumous collection of his philosophical works published in 1949.

I skimmed through the book and latched onto a verbal nugget that helped inspire this week’s blog. In the essay, “The Scientific Method and the Good Life,” Otto writes of “the confusion between science as it actually is, and the aura of myth and legend which envelopes it. Popular science is not science as conceived by the scientist. It has a good deal of magic and the miraculous about it.”

(Nevertheless, in spite of Otto’s intentions, the cover of the book serves to reinforce stereotypes rather than break them, particularly in its depiction of that icon of “moral life,” the quintessential nuclear family composed of a man, a woman, a boy, and a girl. The order of my listing of the family members above is intentional and consistent with the time period of the book, although in another world the hierarchical order might just as well be a girl, a woman, a boy, and a man.)

But let’s return to Otto’s observation that society’s image of science is wildly inaccurate. In the interest of dispelling myths, I want to explore one of the most pervasive ‘myths’ perpetuated in books and movies: the myth of the lone scientist. You all know the type. Brilliant, Driven. Maybe a little crazy. Maybe a lot crazy. Society’s pariah. An outsider with a shoestring budget but who makes a revolutionary scientific discovery. The literary archetype of the lone scientist goes back at least as far as Victor Frankenstein.

I think there are several reasons for why the image of the lone scientist has persisted in fiction, some of them entirely legitimate from a writing standpoint.

  • First, it simplifies the story-telling. Describing a bunch of scientists may be confusing to the reader, so the single scientist serves as a surrogate for the entire scientific process.
  • Second, the writer may be projecting their own idea of the creative process onto the scientific process. Writing is basically a solitary act of creation, and so a writer may use the template they know best when describing the scientist.
  • Third, the outsider viewpoint has always been popular in fiction, not just in science fiction, perhaps because we all feel like outsiders at times (“No one really understands me”) and so find it easy to empathize with the trials and tribulations of the Holden Caulfield’s and Victor Frankenstein’s of fiction.
  • Fourth, the lone scientist may be a historical anachronism. The Victor Frankenstein’s of the world were once more common than they are now. For example, Darwin’s studies on evolution, worms, orchids, and the power of movement in plants were largely self-funded. Nowadays, the cost of science and the amount of oversight required by the government render this approach all but untenable.
  • Fifth, there is always the excuse of simple laziness. The character of the lone scientist already exists, and with a minimum of effort can be shoe-horned into anything from a prehistoric caveman drama (Ooh, fire!) to a space opera (My death-ray shall destroy the universe!).

Below I describe some of the social context within which the twenty-first century scientist works. This information is, of course, colored by my own experiences. I run a molecular biology research lab at a university, rather than in industry, and so the university environment is what I am most familiar with. But part of my point is that the specifics of a research career have significant effects on the social network in which a scientist operates. And it is in these specifics that you can provide the telling details that help define the character of your scientist(s).

“You can’t be shy…”
A colleague once said, “You can’t be shy and be a good scientist.” This doesn’t mean that all scientists are naturally gregarious. Far from it. Many were school nerds. They didn’t spend a lot of time partying and weren’t voted prom king or queen. But this statement does make an important point. Scientists operate within a community where interactions are important for success. To be successful a scientist MUST overcome shyness.

One key example is scientific conferences. These occur primarily during the summer—when university classes are not in session—and can vary in size from a few dozen to several thousand scientists. It is here that scientists communicate their latest findings, frequently in the form of Powerpoint slide shows. A study once identified the greatest fear of the average Joe as that of speaking in front of an audience. Scientists have to overcome this fear, either naturally or with the aid of beta-blockers.

There are also poster sessions at conferences, where scientists stand by 3 x 4 foot posters thumbtacked to cork boards, the posters illustrating critical figures from their studies. It is during the informal discussions at poster sessions that you often find out the latest research news, far in advance of publication. Perhaps not surprisingly, there is an open bar at most poster sessions, alcohol being the great social lubricant of our time. Sidenote: Beer is more popular than wine among scientists (unless, of course, they are from California).

The natural habitat
The lab is the natural habitat of the scientist. In the U.S., university labs are overseen by a professor and may include technicians, graduate students, and post-docs, as well as undergraduates seeking to gain research experience. In industry, there are scientific teams with each team overseen by a team leader. In its own way the lab community constitutes a form of family. The family metaphor is in fact persistent in science and extends across generations. For example, my scientific parents are Michael Sussman and Tony Bleecker, with whom I did my graduate and post-doctoral studies, respectively. My scientific grandfather is Hans Kende, with whom they both studied.

Labs are multicultural, particularly in the U.S. and Europe where labs include researchers from all over the world. In my lab, besides American citizens, I have had graduate students and postdoctoral researchers from China, Taiwan, South Korea, England, and Pakistan. Different parts of the U.S. may have different mixes of personnel. For example, there are a high percentage of Indian and Pakistani graduate students in the American South, the climate of our south being close to that of their home countries (why apply to a northern university and have to adapt to winter as well as to a new country?).

Different scientific disciplines have different male/female representation, which can create different social dynamics in the lab. The highest percentage of women is in the biological sciences, the lowest in computer sciences, physics, and engineering. But even though women obtain 60% of the undergraduate bachelors degrees and 50% of the doctorates in biology, and even though women represent 50% of the biology workforce, women still only account for 22% of the tenured university faculty in biology. For more about this, check out the report “Why So Few?”.

In many ways the team on the bridge of the Star Trek Enterprise, even though depicting a spaceship community of the future, gets a lot of things right when it comes to depicting a lab community as it exists right now: multiculturalism; a hierarchical structure; positive and negative interpersonal interactions (“Spock, you pointy-eared calculator”); the sense of a higher purpose; the skewed male/female ratio.

The potential for conflict
Even from the little I have shared above, it should be apparent there is plenty of room for conflict (i.e. stories) within the social environment of the scientist.

As I said, and it is worth repeating, the lab is in many ways like a family. And families don’t always get along. Feel free to use your own family experiences when imagining the interpersonal relationships in a lab.

Multi-culturalism brings with it cultural differences. I once spent a sabbatical overseas working at the Sainsbury Institute in England. The labs were quite large, each housing several research programs and probably 30-40 scientists (i.e. graduate students, postdocs, technicians). One day I was working with some organic reagents in the safety hood right next to the phone and, when it rang, I answered. To my surprise the voice on the line asked for one of the few people I knew, a German graduate student (she took pride in having the tidiest lab bench, a trait she attributed to her German heritage). But she was way over at the far end of the lab, so I did what any red-blooded American would do in that situation. I called out, “Hey Brigitte, telephone!” Heads whipped around. Jaws dropped. In an English lab, I learned, you never raise your voice.

There are a lot of type-A personalities in science. You may also get a few paranoids and a few true loners, who apparently bought into the popular myth that science was the place for them. And then sometimes you’ll hear stories like this: A post-doc wasn’t making much progress on his research project and no one could figure out why. Then one day a lab member heard him being interviewed on a radio call-in show about the sex manual he was writing. That explained a lot, including how every weekend the post-doc and a bunch of his friends would disappear into a departmental conference room and engage in who knows what behind the closed door.

Or this: A few years back a Brown graduate student prepared dinner for his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend. He wanted to demonstrate to them that he harbored no ill feelings. But as it happened, he had gone to lab beforehand and from there acquired a secret ingredient to add to the menu: the radioactive isotope iodine-125. Luckily iodine-125 has a short half-life and so decayed with no apparent harm to his victims.

It’s not Jerry Springer but it is real life.

“Secret ‘speriments”
My postdoc mentor Tony was once working in lab at night and encountered a stranger wandering the hallways: a skinny guy wearing jeans and a hooded sweatshirt. Tony was suspicious because thieves sometimes break into labs to steal Mettler balances that can be used for weighing drugs. “What are you doing?” Tony asked.

“ ‘Speriments,” the guy said.

“What kind of experiments?”

“Secret ‘speriments.”

Now I don’t believe that guy was telling the truth—he left the building soon after Tony questioned him—but his answer does raise the question as to whether it is possible to carry on secret experiments at a lab. Even in the midst of other scientists.

My answer is a qualified yes.

As a graduate student, I used to come up with ideas for experiments but I didn’t always discuss them with my mentor Mike. Ideas are cheap and most don’t pan out. So I liked to perform the experiment and, if it worked, then tell Mike so we could discuss how to proceed from there. Or as Mike once put it, “You always have something else going on.” I could get away with this as long as the experiment wasn’t too expensive.

Even in grants you have to be fairly conservative in what you propose. Pie-in-the-sky ideas are easy to shoot down, so you only propose what you are confident will work. But when you get a grant you often do test those pie-in-the-sky ideas. An idea may have only 1% chance of success but if it works, oh isn’t that cool!

So it’s not going to be easy to scavenge body parts, reassemble these, and reanimate a superman in the lab without someone noticing. But there are possibilities for an unscrupulous scientist to flaunt the NIH guidelines without being caught, especially when it comes to experiments involving microbes, stem cells, transgenic organisms, or anything using standard molecular techniques. (disclaimer: Eric Schaller does not condone any such actions, and anyone claiming that he does will wake from anxious dreams to discover that they have been genetically modified into a monstrous verminous bug.)

Recommended reading:
MOO, by Jane Smiley. This humorous novel came out while I was still a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and relates events at a large Midwestern agricultural university. Many scientists I know love this book because, I think, even though it stretches its details to extravagant and hilarious lengths, it demonstrates a real understanding of the ways social, economic, and research interests push and pull against each other within a university community. And yes, there is also a secret ‘speriment going on at Moo University. One involving a gargantuan pig.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 24, 2010 12:21 pm

    “Luckily iodine-125 has a short half-life and so decayed with no apparent harm to his victims.”

    This statement immediately raised a red flag — if an isotope has a short half-life, then for a given number of atoms, the radiation is more intense because of the greater number of decays per second. However, the other side of the equation is what kind of radiation are we talking about, what amount was dosed and how readily absorbed (or shed) by the body. It’s the four of these factors together which determine the danger, not just the half-life. Using Wikipedia’s article on iodine-125 as a quick reference, iodine-125 is considered to have a relatively LONG half-life amongst iodine isotopes of 60 days, but has relatively low-energy emissions. Note the word “relatively”. As a point of reference, Iodine-131 is the radioisotope associated with both injuries from Chernobyl and the therapeutic killing of thyroid cells — it has a half-life of 8 days. In the scheme of natural abundance, both of these isotopes are considered short-lived and therefore have a natural abundance of approximately 0%.

    So while it is true that iodine-125 is considered one of the “safer” radioisotopes to handle, I still would be extraordinarily reluctant to consider lacing food with iodine-125 to be an event with few consequences. When treated with iodine-131, the patient is considered to have dangerous fluid emissions for up to a month, be able to set off airport gamma detectors for over three months and women should not get pregnant for at least six months. The 60-day half-life of iodine-125 means that any absorbed into the body will decrease by half only every two months. If you did not shed any absorbed iodine-125, you’d still have 1.5% of the original after a year.

    Now nuclear physics and nuclear medicine are NOT my fields, but still, I think this is more than just the prank of a jilted scientist having a snit.

    Dr. Phil

    • Eric Schaller permalink
      June 24, 2010 3:03 pm

      I completely agree that this was more than just a ‘prank.’ I consider this a clear attempt to cause severe bodily harm, but the half-life of I-125 mitigated some of these potential effects (the culprit could have chosen other isotopes, if available, that would have had much worse and longer-term repercussions). I’m glad he didn’t. But I do consider this a case of attempted murder through poisoning by radiation.

    • Eric Schaller permalink
      June 24, 2010 3:12 pm

      I did a little bit more follow-up on-line, beyond the link on the post. The perpetrator Gu ending up pleading no contest to counts of domestic poisoning, poisoning, and larceny. Scarily, he also said that he had been poisoning his ex-girlfriend for months in hopes that she would become dependent on him.

      • June 26, 2010 11:30 am

        Yikes.

        It’s not that all scientists are mad — you only hear about the mad ones. (evil grin)

        Dr. Phil

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