Monday, December 22, 2008

On leaving the bench

This is cross-posted from my personal blog. It seemed appropriate, and this blog-space seems a little empty of late. It was inspired partly by a post that Thomas Joseph put up.

It’s surprising how much I still feel like a postdoc. I still go to work in the usual postdoc uniform of jeans and sneakers. I still go to seminars, journal clubs, lab meetings. I sit at a computer right in the middle of a lab bench, surrounded by the glassware, conical tubes, equipment and buzz of a research laboratory. I shoot the breeze with my labmates, and I find myself part of scientific discussions. And to my surprise and gratitude, I find that my scientific opinions are solicited and respected. I’m not just a copyeditor, correcting typos and English grammar. As part of my job, I am often required to evaluate the quality of the data going into manuscripts, and I make suggestions on how to tighten a paper, what to cull, what points to bring forward, and (sometimes) how to reorganize figures for a better flow.

I really thought that I would miss the benchwork. To my surprise, I don’t.

The postdoc at the adjoining bench tells me heartbreaking stories of failed projects and projects scooped by his competitors. He is currently getting results that are very exciting. But the previous five years have been a desert, with not a publication in sight--and the stress and disappointment show in his eyes. I don’t miss that stress. I don’t miss that hounding pressure of GOTTA PRODUCE, GOTTA GET PUBLISHED OR MY LIFE IS OVER! I don’t miss the frustration of fruitless screens, of watching a year or more of work spiral down the drain.

Yet I loved bench research, I really did. I remember standing in the darkroom on a Sunday afternoon, heart pounding, waiting for that film to slip out of the X-ray machine. The thrill of holding a blot up to the red light, squinting to make out the dark bands that will tell you where your protein is expressed, or whether or not it interacts with another protein of interest. Looking down a microscope to see to how your cells have reacted in response to a particular treatment—did the cells proliferate, did they spread and migrate, did they round up and die? Pacing impatiently before the scintillation counter, waiting for the results of an enzyme assay. There is nothing like the feeling of being the first person in the world to know some new fact about our universe. Even if it is a fact that even 99.99% of scientists couldn’t care less about—that, for instance, protein X is found in liver cells but not kidney cells. Still, at that moment, you are the only person in the entire world with that knowledge. It is a feeling that is very difficult to convey to those who have not experienced it. I’m not sure that it can be conveyed.

When my experiments were cooking, when my science was working—it was fantastic. It was an utter high. When the experiments weren’t working, it was the deepest low. It was like being on a roller coaster ride, but a ride that spent most of its time creaking tortuously through a subterranean tunnel. I remember sitting around a lunch table with friends in grad school, chatting about school and science in general. One of the students said thoughtfully about research, “You know, about once a year I have a good moment.” I always thought that quote should be printed on the cover of every graduate school brochure.

To mix metaphors still further, I recall once reading that research science is like playing the slots at a casino. (And if, dear reader, I read that on your blog, I do sincerely apologize. Drop me a line and I’ll give you the credit =) Most of the time you come up empty. But every once in a while you’ll get a payout. Just enough to get you excited, to keep you feeding tokens and pulling that damn lever. We all live with the dream of hitting that big jackpot. We feed off the smaller wins, or just the memories of past wins. The hope, the adrenaline, keeps us going through the dry spells.

I don’t have that rush of adrenaline anymore. But neither do I have the crushing lows and stress. I see people around me so desperate to continue their research careers. I know a former postdoc who took a position as associate director of a core facility. She took the job with the understanding that she would be able to continue her research interests. But now she finds that there is neither money nor support for her research. She is struggling on her own, trying to live off reagents and equipment donated by collaborating labs, coming in every weekend to work on her “side” projects. I see someone like that, and I think Man, I just don’t have the heart for that. I loved research, but I don’t have the fire to continue in the face of those kinds of odds.

I did not plan to leave academic research. It was never a part of any five-year plan. I was devastated when I left (er, was laid off from) my former postdoc, and I don’t want to underplay that. But I see a new path opening up before me now. I see a chink of light, and feel a breath of freedom that would never have been possible on the old road. I have flexibility to work from home when needed and spend all weekends with my family. And there is now a glimmering dream of someday going completely freelance as a science writer and editor—working when I want, on what I want, on my own terms.

I’m still in science. I don’t do the experiments, but I help interpret and communicate them. I even (as in the grant I’m now working on) have some input in experimental design. And I’m once again part of an active scientific research community, once again privy to unpublished, cool data, once again part of the “leading edge” of science. I don’t need the glory of a first authorship. I had thought that I missed benchwork the most, and that I would continue to miss it. But it turns out that this—being part of an active scientific community—is what I really missed most of all.