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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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Monday, November 15, 2010

Local Color

Local Color

Watch the full episode. See more OPB Specials.

Not sure where I've been the last 53 years...a lot of this is new to me. Growing up white in small town eastern Oregon, I was insulated from racial conflict. I could easily imagine legal segregation and popular discrimination and violent hate happening far, far away, but not at all in my home state of Oregon.

This video is about ten years old now, but this is the first I've heard of it. I regret my ingnorance. I regret being ignorant of the dark truth of Oregon's social and political heritage. But, better late than never.

One of the statements captured in the video still echoes in my mind: "For life to get better for the blacks in Oregon, whites had to change."

For me, experiencing this video is a part of that change.