Saturday, November 15, 2014

Why Science is NOT Like an Action Movie

Is watching paint peel more exciting than this? Maybe I can try that this weekend?
Okay, I get it. We need more people interested in science, especially more women people and people of color and anyone else who is underrepresented in science and technology fields.

But this is not the way to do it. It is my personal opinion that this is completely misrepresenting science. This does not help scientists. Yes, science can be exciting, and is a worthwhile career. It can be rewarding, and fulfilling, and one can be very successful at it. But how many people will read this and go, "Oh cool!" only to HATE IT once they get into it (*tentatively raises hand, then quickly puts it down*)?

But science is very, very boring, too. It's frustrating, it's stressful, it's annoying and can consume your entire life. Want a PhD? Kiss your friends, your free time, and your life good-bye. The next 3-5 years (or longer, depending on how lazy you are or how much of a jerk your PI is) is going to be spent in the lab, and you will be expected to spend all of your time there. All of it. ALL. If you're not in the lab, your boss will be wondering why they're wasting their time on you. Try 12 hour days (or longer, depending on what your incubation times are), every day of the week. Meaning Saturdays and Sundays are days of the week, too. Oh, and you're not getting paid. Well, if you're lucky, you might be, but it won't be much better than minimum wage.

And once you get your PhD, you get to do your postdoc, where you're still expected to be in the lab most of your waking hours, but you do get paid. Peanuts.

Science is hard, and takes a certain type of person. You must be willing to fail. You have to be persistent and stubborn. Frustration is part of your daily routine. You have to put in the decade or so of being the cheap labor before you land a professorship. Oh. Yeah, well, good luck with that, too. Waiting tables just might make you as much money.

Has the picture been painted for you yet? Does this sound like an action movie yet? In this action movie, we get to watch as Indiana Jones is unable to pay his bills! Bam! In this movie, we get to see Tomb Raider wondering where her next grant will come from (because NIH is funding at about 15%)! Zoom! Will she be able to pay her lab manager for another year? Let's find out; the crying scenes are the best!

Here's a more realistic look at this article (here's the link again, because I'll be referencing it):

1. Well, yes, science is a mystery that we are all trying solve. But comparing the quest to Sherlock makes about as much sense as comparing the justice system to CSI: or Perry Mason. It takes YEARS, maybe DECADES, not a few minutes, to answer those scientific questions. Some scientists spend their entire lives looking at one question. Sound exciting yet?

2. HAHAHAHA! A caper? Really? Most labs do have a team, yes, many with different skills. Most of the time, though, we avoid talking with one another because we're trying to concentrate. No witty movie banter in any lab I've ever worked in. You know that biochemist down the hall? Yeah, I'm only talking to him if I have to, because...well, he's weird. And creepy. Most scientists are a bunch of antisocial weirdos with abnormal social skills. IT'S WHY WE GOT INTO SCIENCE, SO WE CAN WORK ALONE.

3. Does getting eaten by leeches or stricken with Ebola sound like fun?! Who wrote this?! And good luck finding that archaeologist who found the lost city. Most of them find pottery shards and petrified garbage piles (which is really, really useful actually!) Finding lost cities is a news-worthy event, and happens very, very, very, very rarely.

4. Yeah, no. The vast majority of science takes a long time. It's never a "race" unless you're the tortoise. Drugs (including vaccines) can take upwards of a decade to develop and test. All the "science" you see in action movies and TV has been crunched in order to provide a neat package for presentation. You really wouldn't want to wait the 2 hours (30 minutes if you have one of the fancy fast machines) for a PCR to run (nor the extra hour it takes to make and run the gel to visualize the DNA...or the hours sitting at the computer redesigning the primers three times because those didn't work, and running the *&^% PCR three more times...and running those get the idea).

5. True Crime: this one I can definitely agree with. But again, these processes take DECADES, not the few minutes in a science montage in your favorite TV show. Once the process has been developed, it still could take days to weeks to run. A typical genotyping experiment (say for determining the DNA profile of a criminal) could take a few hours up to a week, depending on what system you have and how many postdocs/technicians you can goad into doing it (and how busy their schedule is). And that's if they don't have a backlog.

6. If your lab blows up, it's a problem. You're out of a job, and you might be up for criminal charges. It's not really as cool as it sounds, unless you're the Mythbusters and you have a TV-sized budget, explosion experts, AND a safe place to blow stuff up. Most scientists I know do not blow things up for a living, though some chemists might qualify. And then it would be under completely controlled circumstances and with very small amounts, which isn't as exciting as this. The closest I've come to an explosion in my lab was when I would electrocute bacteria and the cuvette would spark and pop and I'd risk my own electrocution because it was too wet, not cold enough, or the salt balance was wrong. It also meant my experiment had failed and I needed to start over. Not as exciting as an explosion, sorry. I also burned off part of an eyebrow and some bangs when I got too close to a Bunsen burner. Does that count?

7.  Yes, there are scientists that do that. But the blowing up part, or the cool part of watching a house get shaken by a giant robot? Do you know how many hours, days, weeks (years?) went into the planning of those machines? Probably days worth of debugging code, too. And don't forget how long it takes to build, not including the time it takes to draft. They don't show that in the movies, do they?

8. I actually worked in a genomics lab with robots. True, they do the work of one lab tech much, much faster. But you know what? Guess what that lab tech gets to do instead? Fill the robots' water carboys, fill the tip boxes, and line up the plates. Press buttons. Try not to get their head knocked off their shoulders when the robot gets stuck and needs to be taken apart. Watch a robot do their job for them. Feel like Indiana Jones yet?

9. Landing a robot on a comet is one of the coolest things that has happened in recent years. Again, this is a super awesome experience, and hurray for those scientists. That moment is why we do this. But not every scientist gets that moment. The majority of that team is behind the scenes, doing the unexciting grunt work of all the math and debugging code. It probably took them years of boring work to get to that exciting point. But most labs' work isn't nearly as sexy or exciting as even that. The stark reality is that the most needed science, basic science research, is just not getting funded at the rate it should be. It's not cool enough. The vast majority of scientists will never, ever have anything exciting enough to make the news.

The take home message: the lucky scientists, whether they are lucky for the sexy research they are doing or because they just so happen to answer the right question, are the ones who get their Indiana Jones moments. But even that is just the tip of the iceberg. Movies can't show us the years of dull work that went into finding that temple, building that robot, or sequencing that genome.

Science is boring.

But some of the time, it's worth it. And that's why we do it, even though it's the most boring, annoying, frustrating, exciting, awful, fulfilling job out there.

photo credit: Novartis AG via photopin cc