Hello, everyone! It’s the second Monday of the month, which must mean I’m doing a biology-for-writers post. Okay, so I know “what scientists do all day” doesn’t have that much to do with scientific topics of interest to writers, but it’s finals week and I wanted a post that would be quick to write but still informative. And hey, some of you might have scientist characters and be wondering what research looks like, or what different stages of academic science look like. (Science also happens in industry–pharmaceuticals, anyone?–but I’m most familiar with academia, so I’m going to focus on that!)
Life Stages of Academic Scientists
(I’m going to talk a little bit about this first, so I can talk about how research looks for the different stages of scientist in my next section.)
People don’t become scientists overnight. Especially in academia, there’s really a hierarchy, and you can find every stage of scientist working alongside each other in a lab.
The first step is to get your undergraduate degree in a science field (which is where I’m at right now). If you’re an undergrad scientist, you’re probably taking a fairly heavy course load to complete all your general education, major, and elective courses in four years. Undergrad costs a lot, too (at least in the U.S.), so you might be working on the side to help cover that. If you think you want to go to grad school, you’re probably working in a lab, helping a grad student with their research and/or assisting with lab maintenance things (yes, someone has to wash the flasks and beakers). If you’re extra motivated, you might have your own research project, but you get a lot of help from the professor who runs your lab since you’re still so young and inexperienced. And the project can’t be too big, because you really don’t have that much lab time when you’re also taking four classes and working. But you do what you can to get you into grad school.
The next step is to get one or more graduate degrees. If you want to work in industry, or you don’t have enough research experience yet to get directly into a PhD program, you get your master of science degree first. If you want to teach at the college level and run a lab (i.e. be an academic scientist like your faculty mentor), you need a PhD (short for Doctor of Philosophy). Master’s programs usually take two to three years, and PhD programs in the biological sciences average around five years. You take some courses, but not as many as you did when you were an undergrad, and once you’ve selected a faculty advisor, you get right to work in their lab on your thesis project. In order to graduate with your degree, you need to write a thesis (basically a book on your research) and defend it orally to your faculty committee, who will then decide if you get your degree or not. In a PhD program, you also have to pass a comprehensive exam somewhere around halfway through your degree, which will determine if you get to go on to “candidacy” (full-time dissertation research) or not. Now I’ve gone into a lot of details, but basically grad students do a lot more research than undergrads, because their degree depends on it.
Say now you’ve gotten your master’s and your PhD, and after eleven years you’re finally out of university schooling. Phew! What happens next? Well, if their research is outstanding, some lucky souls get hired straight to faculty positions. Most go on to postdoctoral fellowships (“postdocs” for short). The postdoc is the most senior member of the lab save the faculty member who runs it, unless it’s a really big lab and has a professional lab manager who reports to the professor. Postdoc fellowships usually last one to three years, and they work full-time, similar to grad students except no classes and no thesis defending. As I understand it, this serves as a time to build up one’s resume before applying to become a faculty member.
The highest tier is your PI (primary investigator), the faculty member who runs the lab. They determine what is studied in the lab and who works under them doing their projects. They also teach classes and, when they’re young, try to get tenure (which is basically where your university can’t fire you because you’ve proved the quality of your work). I’ve heard there’s a lot of pressure on young faculty to publish a lot of research in order to get tenure. Older professors (like my PI), who already have tenure, can be more relaxed since they are freer to study whatever they might be interested in–contingent, of course, on the availability of funding. PIs manage all aspects of the lab, mostly from their offices, although mine sometimes comes in and reorganizes things in the freezers or teaches students techniques. They usually teach classes for undergrads and grad students, and write up research articles for publication in scientific journals.
What Science Looks Like (In a Laboratory)
With some understanding of the academic science hierarchy, we can now get a general idea of what scientists actually do all day. Naturally, this depends on the discipline, in that different scientists do different things. A neuroscientist, for instance, might do behavioral experiments or brain dissections on mice. I have less idea what ecologists do, but my guess is they go into the field to at least collect their samples. When I worked in a seaweed lab, I used to go to the shore and collect seaweed sometimes. Now, as a rice geneticist/biochemist, I split my time roughly 85% lab/15% greenhouse. Some of the things I’ve done in my lab are in bullet points below.
- Lab Maintenance
- Washing dishes
- Making tissue culture medium (think Petri dishes)
- Disposing of biohazardous waste (seriously not a big deal–I’m only in a Biosafety Level 1 lab)
- Cleaning up ethanol spills (also not a big deal–it’s basically handcleaner)
- Preparing/organizing work surfaces (we put this paper on our prep room bench to absorb any spills)
- Experimental Things
- Collecting samples (read: cutting up rice leaves and putting them in tubes)
- Subculturing tissue cultures (the medium dries out every so often)
- Checking tissue cultures for bacterial contamination (things have to be sterile)
- Extracting and quantifying biomolecules
- Data analysis (Microsoft Excel, anyone?)
- Checking raw data files for quality control (on lab computer)
- Pouring salt water on plants (so I’m a little sadistic once in a while)
- Planting seeds
- Common Genetics/Biochemistry Lab Equipment
- Petri dishes
- Pipettes (used for EVERYTHING)
- Disposable pipette tips
- Microcentrifuge tubes
- Boxes with little dividers for freezing things in tubes, and tube racks
- Freezers (4, -20, and -80 Celsius)
- Autoclave (a kind of steam sterilizer; usually common to multiple labs)
- Heat/stir plate and stir bar magnets
- Small spatulas, forceps, scalpels, razor blades, “scoopulas” (cross between spoon and spatula)
- Beakers, flasks, graduated cylinders, other glassware
- Test tubes (although I use these less than the microfuge tubes mentioned above)
- Centrifuges, spectrophotometers, and other larger equipment
So that post was a little bit longer than I meant it to be, and it didn’t even include anything about specific techniques that are often used in biology. If there’s interest in a post about techniques, let me know in the comments and I’ll drum up something for next month!
That’s it for me this week! Did you find the day-to-day of science interesting? Do you think it will be helpful to you? Would you like to hear about techniques? Isn’t lab glassware awesome? (I’m going to be that person with chemistry-themed dishes someday!) Are you interested in becoming a scientist? Let me know in the comments!