Wednesday Mornings

The group as a whole gathers each Wednesday morning for the so- called “lab meeting." As with the planetary science group, I started my empirical observations by attending these weekly meetings. Witnessing these meetings on a regular basis, I quickly became aware that they follow a rather rigid structure.

The first part of their weekly meetings deals with organizational and technical information. Johan, the group leader, brings up important funding and research deadlines, announcing conferences, workshops, lectures and relaying news on administrative matters. Next, he would turn to “lab matters" and have technicians inform everyone about the purchase of supplies and equipment, and remind them about security guidelines and cleaning duties. Thereafter, group members, usually post-docs, report instrument breakdowns or software problems. The second part of their meetings is dedicated to the discussion of experimental problems and research results. When I started observing their meetings, Johan had just introduced a new routine. Given that he has less and less time for individual supervision, for each meeting Johan now schedules three or four of his students and post-docs to present their current work with a short slide show, reporting on preliminary findings and their plans for the next couple of weeks.

The following field notes were taken during one such lab meeting, the second meeting after the summer break during which many lab members were absent.

The meeting room is slowly filling, around 20 people present, less than usual during semester times. People appreciate the opportunity to chat before the meeting starts. Some of them haven’t seen each other for a while, because they were on holiday or have been visiting other laboratories. I overhear a PhD student asking another: “Hey, what about the results you had? I’d like to know.”

Shortly after nine o’clock, Johan appears, takes his seat, welcomes everybody, and without much ado begins talking about a funding proposal he is busy writing and for which he will need input from various group members during the coming days. Then, in his rather abrupt manner, he announces “lab matters” and quickly walks through a range of topics. He mentions two new PhD students who will j oin their lab and a visitor who will arrive in late autumn. Then he talks about their plan to move offices and lab space to an adjacent building. The moving date is approaching. Johan says it is essential that they “keep the coziness we have here, but to be at the same time closer to the rest of the department.” He goes on to talk about a planned outdoor trip, the yearly lab excursion in early October. He takes a look at the handwritten notes he has jotted on the sheet of paper lying in front of him on the table. The next point on his agenda concerns their lab equipment. There is a problem with repairing an important instrument. Repairing this broken instrument “has been a nightmare.” Other instruments that could serve as a substitute have been moved around the lab building in the course of the ongoing reconstruction process, so they are difficult to access. “In urgent cases we can use the one in biophysics,” Johan says, “but currently we’re using that one more than they are.” Then they talk about other instruments, and discuss which ones they might want to purchase in the near future.

When it is time for individual research presentations, it turns out that it is unclear whose turn it is to present today. Since no one has prepared a slide show, and no one is volunteering to improvise ad hoc, Johan turns to a newly started post-doctoral researcher. It’s only her first week in the laboratory, and she reports that she has started working on a protein together with a PhD student, trying to purify the protein and separate it from other compounds. Unfortunately, the concentration of a substance in a dilution they use for purification was too high, “so that we couldn’t observe any activity.” Johan comments on this encouragingly: “We should definitely have an eye on this.” Then he begins questioning a student who has just returned from a lab at an American university. It turns out, the student reports, that specific experiments that they have been trying to conduct in Johan’s lab earlier this year (alas, unsuccessfully) had “worked over there.” They shortly discuss possible differences in the experimental set-up. Johan closes this episode with an optimistic remark, then asks: “Any other research summaries?” No. But suddenly a spontaneous conversation among four people in the room arises, involving the discussion of recent positive results that one of them has been able to obtain in purifying a protein. As usual, I observe, their discussion is a back and forth between a person whose experimental results are discussed and her commentators whose questions typically follow a distinctive pattern, trying to establish whether particular experimental options have been tried and with what success.

Finally Johan, as always, asks: “Anything else?” They quickly talk about planned trips to synchrotrons, experimental facilities in which the structure of purified proteins can be tested. The booking of autumn time slots for a beamline in a particular synchrotron is opening soon. Who is going there in person? Who else should go, and whose samples can they take with them? Then the meeting is over, and a half a dozen students are waiting to get hold of Johan.

These field notes, as cursory as they are, are a first illustration of the character of the molecular biology laboratory as a research group, its hierarchical structure, the trial-and-error character ofits research, research that is highly specialized and focused on a handful of experimental techniques.

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