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Confessions of an old lab rat

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Confessions of an old lab rat

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Jonathan Ashmore, Department of Neuroscience, Physiology and Pharmacology, UCL, London, UK


“You mean to say you are still doing experiments?” As I “mature” I feel less self-conscious about revealing my failings but the number of people who seem to be poleaxed when they realise that I am still an active laboratory worker never ceases to surprise me. I see that flicker of astonishment, sometimes mild envy, cross my interlocutor’s face. But I do not think I have ever considered being otherwise. My laboratory companions may be less than half my age but here I am, mixing solutions, patching cells, fixing equipment, and all the stuff that comes with being a highly qualified postdoctoral researcher.

I think this must have been a decision I made in my late 30s: that I would try to avoid being in a position of such responsibility that there would be no time for real bench work. I do not think this has soured my relations with administrations. One reason is that I continued to win grants in a research field that was, luckily, quite sparsely populated. Being associated with organisations and societies outside the university I was also seen as useful. Many of my contemporaries – and I don’t in anyway judge them badly for this – found themselves promoted up to managerial positions so that it became increasingly difficult to return to being the laboratory scientist of their youth. You either get branded as a dinosaur, with out-of-date skills or, worse, fear of getting found out for having lost the few that you had. (Alan Hodgkin who, despite a large number of other commitments and even arthritic hands, admitted to being very pleased when he did a really botched dissection only to discover that this was the one that provided key data for one of his elegant papers on the retina (Simon et al., 1975).

I always knew that I wanted to be a lab rat. It was called being a “back room boffin” when I was growing up. I went to a fine progressive school in North London (incidentally also the alma mater of John Nicholls [Nicholls, 2014]) which offered my 6-year-old self the option of either doing woodwork or reading. The choice was so blindingly clear that a few years later, barely reading, I had to be moved onto a more traditional educational path. But those workshop lessons started me off, migrating me through model airplanes to electronics and even to the temporary excursion of becoming a theoretical physicist with a doctorate in the arcane world of quantum field theory. But I found myself back in a lab in my mid-twenties, recording miniature endplate potentials from a neuromuscular junction under the tutelage of Paul Fatt and Gertrude Falk in the Biophysics Department at UCL. And I was hooked!

I suppose I have been lucky – every senior scientist says that – but physiology has always allowed the fortunate to take a random walk through a whole variety of different topics with so much to discover. Finding myself working in hearing was the indirect result of a chance encounter with Ian Russell, then pioneering the cellular physiology of the cochlea, in a corridor of UCSF in California.

Of course I started with an advantage. It was probably easier when I was a graduate not to have to plan a career trajectory and to stumble into various projects without real consideration for the step beyond that. It has also been helpful to think that one should never be dependent on too large a team: I like doing the work so much myself. Working in a laboratory on an equal footing with colleagues who may be students doing their first project or senior colleagues of a like-mind seems normal. This may be another dinosaur trait. Large collaborative groups in the life sciences are encouraged and I agree that certain sorts of science need to be done like that, but I can see it must be hard to step down from running a large laboratory. My inheritance from the world of mathematics and physics has been a belief in small groups, because that is how theoreticians work.

Any researcher will say they are driven by the highs from what they do (that is, when things go well). In my case there are still many interesting questions to answer about hearing and a clutch of new technical issues to grapple with. In the laboratory, I hope that I can provide limited advice about what might and what might not work to students and even to my academic colleagues. The important thing is try to avoid repeating too many mistakes. It is sometimes said that an expert is one who has made all possible mistakes, although most would agree with Richard Feynman that life is too short for that (Feynman, 1997). Nevertheless, the painful process of writing grants (even with others) or the stage nerves when giving a talk persist. The main concern for elderly scientists, past the normal retiring age, is to hope some of the accumulated wisdom (and I use the term guardedly) still trickles down. But I hope that I’ll know when I’ve become a serious liability. Or perhaps, by writing this, I have become one already?

References

Feynman, Richard (1997). Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!. W. W. Norton & Company.

Nicholls JG “Pioneers of Neurobiology: My Brilliant Eccentric Heroes” Sinauer, 2014

Simon EJ et al. (1975). Spontaneous voltage fluctuations 
in retinal cones and bipolar cells. Nature 256(5519), 661 – 662.

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