Lab work is incredibly boring…

I recently heard a journalist say this:

“Lab work is incredibly boring. Science is so incremental; you have to be so accurate all the time, and, you know, you have to be so meticulous. I’m so glad I’m not a scientist. I love the result, but believe me, if I were to try to communicate or get across to the public the feeling of what it’s like to do three or four years of work in a lab, they would run screaming because this is why a lot of people don’t go into science, they’re just not built that way. That said, if you can get across the excitement bit of doing science, that is really important… and discovery, and learning new things, and caring about the truth! So you get across the idea that this [science] is a pursuit of truth with rules that you follow.”

I totally agree with most everything he said, except the first bit. Lab work is tedious indeed, but it is far from boring. I should know, I have spent the last ten years doing lab work, which was never necessarily in my grand plan.

I love to be in wild places. I love to be outside. I grew up spending the three months of summer on a tiny island in Georgian Bay, Ontario, Canada.

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But a tiny glimpse of the 30,000 islands in Georgian Bay, Ontario, Canada.

My family and I were the only people on the island and with no electricity, telephones or television, my brother and I got very creative in the out-of-doors. Indeed, I grew up immersed in a world of discovery and exploration and quickly developed a deep appreciation for nature and a need to be outside as much as possible.

My affinity for science was passed down from my Mother, who was a biology professor at a small, liberal-arts university in Texas, Texas Lutheran University.

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Dr. Deborah Hettinger, my Mother, in a canoe on Georgian Bay.

Biology felt like it was in my blood…both literally and figuratively. I enrolled in a different small, liberal-arts university in Texas, Southwestern University, and took an Animal Behavior class that was a game-changer for me. Dr. Jesse Purdy opened my eyes to the world of animal learning research, cuttlefish, and Sir David Attenborough.

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Meeting one of my idols, Sir David Attenborough, while on our way to McMurdo Station in Antarctica, January 2010.

With Purdy’s encouragement, I took a leave from SU to go to Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia to enroll in some marine science-specific courses, and ended up staying for three years and completing my degree. What I was expecting in Halifax was quaint fishing villages and the best seafood chowder on Earth, and what I found upon arrival in Halifax was more than I bargained for.

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My car after a small Spring storm in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Nonetheless, I had many amazing opportunities for research and exploration.

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Lobsters collected while volunteering on a Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans research cruise in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

While a student at Dalhousie I took a summer study abroad program in Tropical Marine Science in Akumal, Mexico. Here I SCUBA dove daily and completed a project on coral reef disease. This experience led to my decision to become a marine ecologist.

After Dalhousie I worked as a field research technician and continued diving, but this time in the kelp forests of Santa Catalina Island and on the back reefs in Kaneohe Bay of Oahu, Hawaii. As a MS student, I worked and dove in the shallow kelp forests near the Wrigley Marine Science Center on Santa Catalina Island.

By the end of my MS I had logged hundreds of hours underwater, most spent lugging marble tiles and metal cages around and drilling countless holes into rocks underwater.

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Hauling around marble tiles and metal cages underwater, on SCUBA, at Santa Catalina Island.

I was exhausted and ready for less physically-strenuous research. My PhD advisor also encouraged against a project that required diving to collect data. [I will write a different post about the ups and downs of scientific research diving.]

Ten years later, after my PhD and two postdocs, I have spent nearly no time in the field and many hours leaned over a lab bench and a microscope. And I can say that this work in the lab has not been boring. While lab work and being “at the bench” may not have the allure of sunshine glittering on tropical waters or the smell of salty breezes blowing gently off an estuary at dawn, it can be exciting in different ways.

All research is tedious and repetitive whether done in a lab or underwater, floating above a technicolor coral reef. Indeed, at times collecting data can be almost mind-numbing. But it is almost never boring. It can’t be because if it was, then the data being collected could be jeopardized from lack of focus. What has kept science and data collection exciting for me is the constant troubleshooting aspect of the process, having to think ahead, be flexible, and make quick decisions that can often have big consequences for the resulting work. For me, this has been true both in the field and in the lab. A good scientist is defined in many ways, but a great scientist always has common sense, the ability to troubleshoot problems that arise [and they always arise], and the wherewithal to know that if the process is getting boring, it is time to take a break.


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