Lab life: Idylls and hurricanes

Oh, those hazy, lazy days of summer, where have they gone? The late evening sunshine (Ha!), the light, bright, warm (‘ish) mornings, the leisured thwack of leather on willow and the ready availability of lab equipment, what luxury?!

As an academic research scientist, the summer months can seem almost idyllic.

October to early June is the lab's hectic time, when days feel very short and the workload endless. It’s difficult enough finding time to deal with students and bureaucracy adequately, let alone write papers and do experiments. Out of hours working, at home and in the lab, is an expected -though not necessarily tiresome- norm. At times there’s a pervasive feeling of having to run as fast as you can just to keep still.

Around the end of June things have quietened down considerably. Teaching is over and exams have finished for another academic year, the undergraduates quickly become a distant memory. Final year PhD students move from lab to office for the marathon of writing up their thesis. There’s the occasional PhD straggler, still in the lab almost 24/7, doing endless ‘Just one more’ experiments to complete their lab work. I swear some even sleep there! Many people are simply on their annual vacation. The labs are significantly more relaxed places to work and feel more spacious. Campus is quiet.

The summer months, joy of joys, herald the conference season. We wearied researchers and principal investigators (PI’s) emerge from our hidey-holes, a little dishevelled and blinking in the brightness of relative freedom. It’s the time to present our work to our peers at one academic conference or another.

Conferences are priceless, they’re events for putting faces to the names in research papers and where it’s possible to speak with, and listen to, the ‘Stars’ of our field in person. These meetings are essential information exchanges and brilliant networking opportunities. Many a successful international collaboration has been proposed or consolidated in the bar at the end of the day. If you’re lucky, there’s even the occasional whiff of scandal, intrigue or gossip. I believe that nice food, agreeable locations and copious amounts of alcoholic beverages sometimes make these meetings enjoyable too.

Summer, for me, is also a time to think. What a shocker! You might imagine thinking is a given for a university scientist, and you’d be correct, to a certain extent. In the busy times I’m mostly thinking about ‘When can I get on that bit of kit? Can I afford to do this experiment? Is it coffee time yet? What the hell does that mean?? Stop. Bothering. Me!’

Summer’s different, I allow myself real honest-to-goodness thinking time. Time when it’s possible to do nothing else but relax, use my brain, read research papers, ponder the finer detail of my work and how it fits into a larger whole. It’s a very, very rare and precious commodity indeed. The pressures to ‘Publish, or Die’ are so overwhelming that taking a few days (or hours) out of the normal work schedule to think, during the busier times of year, makes me feel as guilty as hell. Thinking also oils the wheels of writing research papers and funding applications; more summer delights.

This ‘idyll’ lasts until around the end of September, just before the student hoards descend upon us once again. Don’t get me wrong, the following months are enjoyable, it is simply a more hectic rather than idyllic time.

Late October and early November feel like we’re being battered by the full force of an academic hurricane, with the eye of the storm not due to pass over us until Christmas at least. The new crop of undergraduate project students, master’s students and PhD students, are making the lab feel extremely crammed and the PI’s are grappling with their teaching load.

This year the lab is accommodating a total of 16 new and inexperienced bodies in pristine white lab coats and shiny safety specs, not to mention two or three new post docs. Technicians are looking hassled and I keep finding empty chemical pots on the shelves. Grrrrrr!

We have timid students, bold students, loud and quiet students, bright and not so bright students, small, tall and (already) irritating students. They watch intently, nonchalantly or disinterestedly whilst the pouring of gels, remedial pipetting, PCR and the finer points of protein purification and crystallisation are demonstrated or explained to them. There’s an extra buzz and energy about the place. New people, new ideas, new ways of looking at things, increased general noise and plenty of laughter. Nothing better for giving the um….erm,…..more experienced amongst us a metaphorical kick up the backside. Unfortunately, there’s no time to revel in it.

We ‘lab rats’ are squeezed into offices, crowded round benches or in front of bits of kit, discussing and planning projects or experiments as part of one small huddled group or another. There are comical ‘Pied Piper’s’ wandering round, trailing faintly bewildered and mesmerised human beings in their wake as they meander from lab to lab, imparting pertinent words of wisdom or more likely blathering total nonsense.

This hive of activity is fuelled by extra strong coffee, though disturbingly I’ve noticed a recent trend in the younger element, they increasingly prefer tea or flowery, fruity, sweet smelling and herby drinks. Weird! It’s not how I was brought up to do science.

This year I’m only supervising two students (2nd and 3rd year so they’re self sufficient), a very good Erasmus student and have a part share in a master’s student. As I run out of money at the end of April, having one student (Erasmus) to deal with on a daily basis should allow me time to produce a stonkingly good funding application. If not, I’ll probably be shipping the family to pastures new. I don’t want to do that, but I’ll have little choice.

Looming unemployment also means I may not get the chance to enjoy next summer’s idyll.

Still, it could be worse, at least I’m not stuck down a mine.

Thanks for reading.



  1. Not quite publish or die, but publish or perish:


  2. Hmmm, best of luck with the funding application! I didn't realise the perennial crunch time was looming again.