For those that have never been inside a research lab, the day-to-day tasks of a scientist may seem foreign. Many people’s only conception of what it is like to be a scientist comes from TV or movies, where data are generated quickly and discoveries are produced in sudden “a-ha” moments, by scientists usually portrayed as strange or extraordinarily intelligent. Although there are many advantages to a career in science, the challenges, drudgery, and detail often involved in multi-year projects is never explained.
The U.S. government strongly supports encouraging young people to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers, but I wonder how we can achieve that goal if those same young people have no idea what it is really like to have a career in STEM. For this reason, I wanted to describe a typical day in the lab, so that someone unfamiliar with the day-to-day flow of a scientist’s job could at least get a taste for what it entails. However, there is never really a “typical” day in the lab since every day is, almost by definition, different – different experimental techniques, different meetings throughout the day, and daily variability in how smoothly an experimental procedure runs. This may be one reason why it is hard to describe what we actually do to people who have never experienced it. Despite this hurdle, I tracked my activities over the course of a day in an effort to dispel some of the mystery.
I am a Postdoctoral Fellow (or “postdoc” for short) at a university. This means that I have a Ph.D. in Neuroscience but am still in a training position under another scientist, commonly referred to as the Principal Investigator (or “P.I.” for short). You can think of a postdoc as a paid intern doing scientific research. The structure of my day will necessarily be different from a graduate student’s, a technician/staff scientist’s, and a P.I.’s, especially in the expected amount of coursework, teaching, experiments, grant writing, and administrative responsibilities. As we say in the biz, this is merely an “N of 1” (which means that it is a single data point, from which it is difficult to draw conclusions), so my experience may or may not be representative of a day in every scientist’s career. In fact, the day I happened to document is a fairly long day in the lab for me, so be aware that not every day is even like this for me.
Without further ado, I present the following data I collected on myself during a Wednesday in 2015:
8:30-9:00am: I made fresh solutions and organized the equipment I needed for today.
9:00-9:15am: I visited the animal facility to check the health and well-being of our lab’s mouse colony and retrieved the mouse being used for today’s experiment.
9:15-10:15am: I prepared brain slices from the mouse. These slices were kept alive in a saline solution that has oxygen pumped through it.
10:15-10:45am: I recorded information for today’s experiment in my laboratory notebook, checked my email, and looked over a list of scientific journal articles published today.
10:45-11:40am: I processed some of the brain slices by mounting them on a microscope slide, and I looked at them under a microscope in order to check the quality of my experiment. I had performed brain surgery on this mouse previously and wanted to confirm whether the surgery had gone as planned.
11:40-11:55am: I ate lunch.
11:55am-1:00pm: I set up my equipment in order to perform field potential electrophysiology, which is a technique I use to measure the electrical responses from multiple neurons at once in the brain slice. This allows me to test the strength of the connections between neurons.
1:00-2:45pm: I started recording electrical responses from some of the brain slices, answered a labmate’s questions, recorded temperature readings from the experimental setup, and looked over more recently published journal articles.
2:45-3:15pm: I recorded baseline electrophysiological parameters from the brain slices. This gives me an idea of whether there are any differences in how the neurons behave before I introduce any changes to the system.
3:15-3:45pm: I attended an ice cream social, which was hosted by UT Southwestern’s Graduate Student Organization, while the equipment continued to record electrical responses from the brain slices. This was a welcome break in the middle of the day and allowed me to chat with some fellow postdocs and graduate students.
3:45-4:25pm: I applied a pharmacological agent (drug) to the brain slices and planned out future experiments while I waited. The drug affects the connections between neurons, but I wanted to test whether the prior surgery I performed on this mouse changes how the drug alters these connections.
4:25-5:10pm: I washed the drug off of the brain slices, checked my email again, performed lab chores (cleaning/organization), and looked over more journal articles.
5:10-6:20pm: I measured electrical responses from the brain slices again to see how they were changed by the previous drug application. I also updated the SPEaC website, discussed a scientific journal article with a labmate, updated the spreadsheets I use to keep track of animals and experiments, and organized my thoughts in preparation for my weekly meeting with my P.I./mentor the next day.
6:20-6:55pm: I cleaned up the previous experiment and set up for a second experiment. Although this may seem a bit late in the day to start a new experiment, I do this in order to get as much data as possible from each animal, which reduces the number of animals necessary for the whole project. If I absolutely needed to leave lab to go home, however, I could have stopped here.
6:55-7:05pm: I had dinner. I often pack both a lunch and a dinner for work just in case I get stuck in lab late, like I did today.
7:05-9:15pm: I recorded baseline parameters from the brain slices (like I did before), wrote out my planned schedule for the next day, looked through more scientific journal articles, and brainstormed for both an upcoming conference presentation and a grant application to fund my research.
9:15-9:20pm: I used a strong stimulation to electrically activate the neurons in the brain slices. My aim for this particular experiment was to induce a well-studied form of synaptic plasticity called long-term potentiation. This strengthening of the connections between neurons is thought to underlie learning in the brain.
9:20-10:30pm: I recorded electrical responses from the brain slices to see whether they produced long-term potentiation, and I also continued brainstorming.
10:30-10:45pm: I cleaned up from today’s experiments and readied myself to leave for the day. I made a plan to analyze the data collected today at some point tomorrow.
After this long day, I added only a couple of data points to my experimental dataset. This procedure will need to be repeated several more times before I can tell whether the manipulation I introduced into the system is having any effect on the biology of the brain cells. Even after this experiment is replicated enough times, it will likely fill up a single panel of a multi-panel data figure amongst multiple figures in one scientific journal article. This experiment, therefore, is just a tiny piece in a much larger puzzle. For this reason, you can begin to appreciate why it takes so long to acquire any sort of “answer” to a scientific question.
As I mentioned before, every day is different. This can have advantages, as it protects against boredom (which can creep in during long or repetitive tasks) and also brings flexibility. Some days my lab goes out to lunch to celebrate birthdays, some days I teach a class, and some days I spend most of my time in meetings or attending scientific talks. Barring events with set times, I create my own schedule and plan which experiments I will do on any particular day. If I need to fit in a dentist appointment during the day or be home in time to catch a play in the Dallas Arts District, I can plan experiments around it. Sometimes plans are unexpectedly disrupted by equipment failures, animal emergencies, impromptu meetings with my P.I., or urgent administrative tasks, but I can usually envision the general workflow of a day before it occurs.
Despite the sometimes intense work, I know plenty of scientists who take the time to enjoy cultural events, bicycling, local breweries, time at home with their families, or other fun things when they are not in the lab. Some scientists work shorter days in the lab so that they can drop off and pick up their kids from daycare or school but may do some work on the computer at home after their kids are asleep. Some postdocs work long hours during the week so they don’t need to come into lab on the weekends. Some work around 9 or 10 hours per weekday and then also work a few hours on Saturday and Sunday. As a postdoc, especially if you have your own funding source that is independent from your P.I., the way you structure your time is not nearly as important as how productive you are scientifically.
This is definitely not a 9am to 5pm or even a Monday to Friday job, but it can be very rewarding. Scientists do not generally pursue science careers for money, fame, or convenience. Instead, they are driven by the thrill of new discoveries, the gratification of solving complicated puzzles, and the potential to alleviate some of society’s biggest problems. Persistence is just as important as, if not more important than, intelligence for success in science. Just please remember that the rewards that come with a science career do not arrive on the same time scale or in as grandiose a manner as a TV show or movie might portray.
Editor: Sharon Kuss