Today marks the 7th day of Hanukkah. If you don’t know, Hanukkah is an annual Jewish celebration that lasts for 8 days and begins around late November to late December—the exact date differs depending on the Hebrew calendar. I had the good fortune to attend a lighting of the menorah for almost each day of the past week. I also ate a lot of sufganiyah, which is basically a jam donut with an extra dollop of jam on the top, and sang along (badly) to the songs that are sung during the candle lighting. This year, the holiday started a little early on the 2nd of December, which thankfully reserves the rest of the month for the season to be jolly. Sorry my Jewish friends, but Christmas still holds a dear place in my heart.
Lab work proceeded as usual, albeit slower due a few absences caused by the festivities. I’ve had to postpone sequencing of my ChIP-seq libraries again after an already lengthy process of troubleshooting and quality control. However, this gave me a some leeway to try my hand at a little tissue culture, after procrastinating for far too long since I arrived. Managed to get somewhat of a feel for the mouse cell lines that our lab works with and the rhythm of my own workflow. I’m quite fond of the work, despite my occasional complaints of the mindlessness and tedium of it all. There is something hypnotic about working under the lab hood to the drone of the automatic airflow system. It’s conducive to reflection. At a couple instances this week while staring at my 6-well plates, I had a series of philosophical meanderings about the nature of work and of academic or intellectual pursuits. More specifically, I was thinking about how wet work is mostly just following protocols and making sure you’re keeping everything sterile and are pipetting correctly. It’s for sure a kind of craftsmanship. The work that goes into planning and designing experiments is reminiscent to an engineer or an architect coming up with prototypes or drafts. And the execution of a plan feels like the busy work of a construction site rather than the idealised image of a scientist. Yes, the aesthetics of it—beakers, test tubes, gloves and lab coats— fulfil the stereotype, but the work itself stripped of these decorations is quite repetitive and may go the same way as what some have predicted for computer programming . The creative part—the actual science that is—seems almost over-shadowed by what makes up the rest of the ‘science’ that goes on in laboratories*.
In any case, I was more than aware of all of this before I committed to the scientific path. I do appreciate the meditative aspects of the work, and am glad I don’t need to problem solve 24/7. It’s nice to be able to chill out and know that the science will get done in its own due course, regardless of any excess ‘scientific thinking’ I’m actually doing. It takes a lot of pressure off needing to be ‘brilliant’ or ‘talented’ that perhaps plagues other more theoretical fields. Actually, I wouldn’t mind discussing this idea with scientists whose progress solely depends on intellectual pursuits. How does the type of experiments you are expected to conduct change the way you perceive productiveness? Are more hands-on fields inherently less conceptual in terms of the questions they attempt to answer? Intuitively, more mathematical-oriented subjects are more abstract, but are mathematicians expected to be productive to the same degree as biologists (e.g, number of hours spent working/thinking about a problem)? Science is a such a broad umbrella, considering all the different disciplines and ways that science is carried out. Perhaps I need up update my answer to ‘what does it mean to be a scientist’? I think being a scientist is something one becomes after learning the tools and tricks of the trade, and when you begin to understand a field deeply enough to apply your knowledge and skills to novel questions and hypotheses.
To live a life of the mind is something I’ve told myself I want to aspire towards. However, I realise now that to do that most effectively it is also necessary to live a life outside the mind. To have practical knowledge of how the outside world responds to changes in the environment is an important part of what it means to understand. That is, creating and recording inputs and outputs with your senses provides a qualitatively different experience to simply reading about it. I’m not sure how to explain this disconnect philosophically or epistemically, but it makes intuitive sense to me.
Featured pic is a photo from French Hill overlooking East Jerusalem.
*at least in the life sciences