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Monday, November 22, 2010

Scientifically Disappointed

Scientifically Disappointed

I work for a laboratory.

In my mind, a laboratory is best described as the color white. I always imagine a laboratory to have white countertops, white walls, white cabinets, white floors, white computers, white ball point pens. No, maybe not the pens...I imagine the pens being black. Black pens with a chrome retractor and a chrome clip which allows it to be placed securely in the pocket of a white lab coat. If you look closely at the chrome clip you can see a reflected image of a white laboratory.

I remember being so excited when my second-grade elementary school teacher announced to us second-grade school children that the lavoratory was just down the hallway from our classroom. A lavoratory! That's the same as laboratory, just pronounced differently, right? No. I sadly learned the truth five minutes later as we all trooped down the hallway to experience the lavoratory. "Lavoratory" was a fancy word for "bathroom", which is the common, rural word for "restroom", which is entirely misleading in my opinion. For a child, the restroom was not a place of peace. It was fraught with anxiety which I will not describe in detail other than to say that I was not an unselfconscious seven-year old child.

Back to the laboratory.

I still maintain my belief in the whiteness of laboratories, despite my early disappointment with lavoratories. I imagine white-coated scientists using complicated, precise instruments to measure and manipulate and investigate and inquire. I have long desired to experience the systematic exploration of phenomena and brilliance of new discoveries.

Look carefully at the sentence that introduces this essay. I work "for" a laboratory. Not in, but FOR a laboratory.

At times during the course of my workday I happily get the opportunity to see inside a laboratory. I even know the names of a few of my co-workers who work IN a laboratory. But I am a data-collector only. I pick up and deliver samples to be analyzed, and I maintain the equipment that automatically collects and analyzes samples. I am only a field technician supporting the scientists who work in the laboratory.

I felt keen disappointment when I realized that I would be working FOR a laboratory, rather than IN a laboratory. I was fifty years old when I was hired, yet I still had the childish imagination and expectant hopes of a second-grade school boy. Told that I would be working for a laboratory, my seven-year old heart skipped enthusiastically over the word, "for", and convinced my fifty-year old mind that I would soon be donning a white lab coat and doing science "in" a real lab.

On my first day of work, I was shown the real laboratory, and indeed, I saw white-coated scientists measuring and calibrating and calculating and precising. "Precising" is not a word. That shows how distant I am from being a real scientist.

On that first day I became a technician. I donned beige coveralls, which are euphemistically called "whites", and steel-toed boots. I carried a sack lunch, not to the lab, but to a maintenance support building. My boss issued to me a gray, plastic toolbox, with a combination lock, and a army-grade tool belt. And a Leatherman multi-tool. The only item remotely connected to a laboratory were safety glasses with side-shields. Carpenters wear these same safety glasses, at least in workshops complying to federal safety laws. At work, I could easily be mistaken for an OSHA-Compliant-Carpenter.

Thus I began work as a laboratory technician, far away from my dreams of a laboratory scientist working on white countertops.

It's not too bad. In fact, I completely recognize that I would not be happy working in a pristinely white laboratory. I need the fresh air. I need to wrench nuts and bolts and join tubes and pipes, repairing and controlling and devising and adjusting. I wouldn't last long working on a molecular level.

I still want a white lab coat, however.

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