Science’s great balancing act

It was an incredibly grey day today. The type of day that makes you just want to stay in doors and snuggle up to your hot-water bottle, or in my case, my lovely microscope.

Alienation according to Marx
As I mentioned in my about page, I studied philosophy in my undergraduate degree. I am using that to justify this slightly more philosophical blog post. I will deviate slightly from my biomedical science and neuroscience to return to my philosophical roots (because my life is quite empty now that I am not pondering existential questions) and discuss one of Karl Marx’ theories. I promise that this will all make sense when I show how it can be applied to lab work. Marx had a whole theory about worker’s alienation and how a worker could feel alienated due to his/her work, the act of working or due to being a worker. Alienation for Marx is when the worker loses his/her ability to think and be fully in control of his/her own actions. Of course, this theory was devised by observing factory workers who didn’t really have much control over what they did day to day. It isn’t as much the case for a scientist who has to meticulously plan experiments and thoughtfully carry out difficult protocols. That being said, I think that alienation is still present in science work, and I’d like to argue that it is in fact necessary. Not every aspect of science is alienating, but running gels, counting cells, and other forms of repetitive work can very well be. You need these alienating tasks in order to appreciate other aspects of your lab work such as the results. If everything was always fun and mentally stimulating all the time, everything would feel boring and meaningless after enough repetition. Everything is relative: the alienating tasks make you truly appreciate the rest of your work, where you step up to your full potential and engage all of your synapses!

Optimisation 101
Speaking of alienating work, I have spent all month trying to optimise transfection conditions for new constructs. Transfecting in more or less of the plasmid, for a longer or shorter length of time, I must have tried a dozen combinations. The trick is having the plasmid in long enough for the cell to express your protein of interest, however not long enough for this exogenously expressed protein to kill your cells. It is one of science’s great balancing acts… Although I did have to plan it all out (and I love planning experiments), the actual transfection bit was a bit alienating, but getting positive results was definitely worth it! (See how I appreciate results more, since I had to do the alienating work first?)

How to get a PhD position
I am very happy to be writing this blog about life as a postgraduate student in the CMVM. I do however realise that most of my readers aren’t yet postgraduates at the University of Edinburgh. I know that I already do a fabulous job at describing my life in the CMVM (and apparently I think incredibly highly of myself as well), but a lot of blog-readers/ prospective students probably wish I would discuss actually getting to my position, that is to say how to actually get a PhD position. I will not be doing that, but luckily the PGSS team hosted an event with a panel of experts about how to apply for a PhD position, including how to approach a PI, how to make a perfect CV and how to ace the interview. Check it out on the PGSS blog!

I hope that you enjoyed my mini philosophy lesson and that you will now appreciate all of the little alienating tasks in life.