Spotlight on research: What’s going on in those labs, anyway?

So some of you might be wondering what it’s like to work in a lab. Of course, some of you might think you know, since you watch CSI and all. Well, I’m here to tell you that working in a lab is just like CSI, except without the magical montages that allow them to do procedures that take a week in less than 30 seconds. And also without all the romantic drama. Oh, and also without those fancy glass projecto-monitors on all the walls. And, of course, without that part where your co-workers get kidnapped and/or shot every couple of months. So in summary, pretty much not at all.

Alright, what about those movies where they make crazy mutant creatures that take over the world… is it like that?

Alright, what about those movies where they make crazy mutant creatures that take over the world… is it like that?
Let’s get down to it… compared to what you see on TV and in movies, lab work is pretty boring. And hard! While it would be awesome if you could just pop some stuff together in a tube and make a new mutant species, it doesn’t really work like that. Also, there are all sorts of pesky ethics rules and the like that would get in the way.

Well what about all that crazy looking equipment?
It’s true that some of the equipment is complex and difficult to explain, but a lot of it is just designed for simple tasks that you’d do in a kitchen, like heating, cooling, measuring or stirring things. Many of the things we do in lab are a lot like following a recipe – but a complicated, gourmet one, where if you mess up a single step, even slightly, you end up with a disgusting mess. Biologists, of course, study living things, so much of our equipment also revolves around those: growing them, harvesting them and studying how they work.

So what do you guys do in there?
The goal of a scientist is simply to contribute new knowledge to their field. Sometimes this knowledge can be on obscure topics, but with the current funding situation, it usually has some application to human health or technology. There are many ways of studying these problems, though, and scientists take a variety of approaches. Some people study human beings directly, while other people use other animals and organisms as a model for humans (which is a topic for a future post). Some people even use computer programs to simulate biological systems or analyze large sets of data and make conclusions.

So bottom line, what is it like to be a researcher?
Research can be pretty cool. After all, you can do an experiment that will tell you something that nobody else in the world has ever known. On the other hand, it can also be difficult because the experiment success rate is pretty low and progress often moves slowly. But, if you’re a curious person who loves to understand the nitty-gritty of how things work, it can be a really rewarding job. Especially if you’re a curious person who likes to wear jeans to work everyday!

P.S. – Those colored liquids in the picture above? Also a common scientist myth. Almost everything we work with is clear!

Photo by c.a.muller

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Filed under Lucy Q.

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