Sunday, March 09, 2008

Experimentally Speaking

Da Vinci Sculpture
Sculpture honoring Leonardo Da Vinci in his home town, Vinci, Italy.

I have done so many experiments in my day—shouldn’t a piece about them come readily to mind? Shall I recall the day I finally cloned the gene that allowed me to complete my dissertation? I revisit my graduate school days in my dreams periodically. The theme is always the same. I have one more experiment to do. I have left one lead unpursued, one question unanswered. I need to get back to the lab.
Perhaps it is this feeling of unfinished business that keeps me away, the nagging sense that I have left some work undone, incomplete, that other people have “scooped” me. If only I had persevered. . . . Would I now be famed in my field? Respected by my peers? Published in Nature or in Science? (My dissertation work was completed by another student and finally published in Cell which is respectable in itself).
Now we are getting into the regrets that lead to alternate universe thoughts. I’ll stick with my present universe, thank you. I chose my current path and, I think, did so wisely. I enjoyed the planning and idea stages of research but bench work was not for me. I didn’t have the methodical nature to excel at measuring small quantities of liquids into small tubes. Add yet smaller amount of purified enzymes. Centrifuge out the debris. Add to a gel form and subject to an electrical current. Bind to a radioactive compound and image the result as a series of bands which I then interpreted. And repeat. Because in science everything must be repeated. Much of my research was like making a soufflé but with more precise measurements, many more steps, varied ingredients and more uncertain results. Sometimes what came out of the oven distinctly smelled awful and was highly inedible.
A postdoctoral fellow I knew once commented that a monkey could be trained to do most of what we did in the lab. Perhaps the monkey would have had more patience. I spent around 7 years of my life doing experiments during my Ph.D. work and a brief postdoctoral fellowship. I exposed myself to substantial quantities of radiation and toxic substances. I haven’t developed cancer (yet). I have few regrets but still I dream.
I have two kids, a nice house, financial stability, a small independent clinical practice. So why the dreams? Perhaps they are merely the residue of many years of hard labor. Perhaps they reflect the greatest experiment of all—one’s own life. Hypothesis: If I follow a certain course, at the end of my days, I will close my eyes on a life well lived. Results: TBA.

For more biographical writing on my dissertation, go to this post.


Crafty Green Poet said...

I can relate to your feelings here, I decided in the final year of my degree that a career in the labs wasn't for me and i've no regrets but I'm thinking of hwading back into another area of science (starting by working at the Edinburgh International Science Festival after Easter)

Kathe said...

This sounds like too much thinking to me. I think I'll go and crawl back under my rock in the woods. ;^)

Snail said...

Dreams are wonderful. Regrets not so much.

gautami tripathy said...

I wanted to study English Literature but my dad insisted I study Chemistry. I do not regret anything.

Refluxing Life

Attila The Mom said...

Sounds like cheese dreams. LOL Just kidding.

Beautiful pic!

Larry said...

Interesting-I learned something new about you.-I wouldn't like the idea of exposing myself to cancer causing agents.-If a monkey could do it then why don't they have monkeys doing it? I don't like it when people make negative comments like that.-Not that there's anything wrong with monkeys.

sarala said...

Not to worry, Larry, the monkey comment only was intended to refer to how boring and repetitive some of the work was.

Tammy said...

We need researchers but it's not for everyone. Sounds like you made a good choice for you.

Chris in Oxford said...

Beautifully written! For someone who has less than a month left in an academic lab and is leaving for many of the reasons that you did, I can definitely relate. It's disturbing that you still struggle with that "unfinished" feeling that you get from a research project, though.