The division of labor in the molecular biology laboratory is hierarchically structured, which reflects, by and large, professional seniority—the laboratory’s senior scientists, most prominently the lab leader, delegate tasks to junior scientists and supervise them. To organize this supervision, lab members are clustered into subgroups, each of which is dedicated to the study of a set of similar proteins. These proteins are purified and crystallized to ascertain their molecular structure. Because much of this work is hands-on, time-consuming and labor-intensive, most research in the molecular biology laboratory is carried out collaboratively. Even though the crystallization of a protein is, as a project, typically assigned to one or two individual lab members, many different hands are involved in the experimental routines that are necessary to determine a protein’s molecular structure.
For a more detailed discussion of the lab’s division of labor, let me present the empirical material that I gathered while shadowing Alex, an advanced PhD student. The following field note describes an interaction between Alex and Sylvia, a less experienced PhD student. Both Alex and Sylvia belong to a subgroup supervised by Magnus, an experienced post-doc. They each work on their “own” protein but collaborate closely during day-to-day experimental labor, helping one another out, offering advice and discussing experimental issues. Since the proteins studied within one subgroup are selected so as to resemble one another strongly, subgroup members often rely on the same, or very similar, protocols for their experimental procedures. As we will see, this enables them to share material resources, such as certain dilutions to wash their proteins, which have to be carefully prepared from scratch and whose composition has to be fine-tuned to individual proteins.
His schedule leaves Alex a little more than half an hour to help Sylvia with her “lipidization,” a specific experimental step in the purification procedure. She has performed the step before, but she cannot remember the details of it. After a look at her protocol, Alex discovers a mistake in the protocol which she has formulated on the basis of Magnus’s directions. But since she uses the dilutions Alex had prepared earlier for his experiments, not her own, it doesn’t matter. She is lucky.
As a student, Sylvia was educated in theoretical chemistry and she is not yet familiar with a number of standard procedures required for the purification of proteins. Alex and Sylvia talk repeatedly about Magnus’s protocol and how exactly she needs to perform certain procedures listed there—e.g., that the sample should always be kept on ice, Sylvia! But how do you handle the things in between the lines that differ from lab to lab and from person to person? Alex: “So you have to ask different people, but not too many different people. I think Magnus and I are semi-consistent.”
Alex is telling Sylvia what to get and what to do: ice, buffer, defrost the protein. He does some calculations for her to get the right dilutions in the right amounts. They do a dry run of lipidization in which he is showing Sylvia each step. When she performs them herself on her protein sample, he corrects her. Suddenly something is going wrong. There are too many bubbles in the dilution with her protein. Their movements become hasty as they try to fix the problem. Alex is proposing a number of options to correct the failure, but she will anyway, as Alex explains quickly, “(a) have too little sample for a good crystallization, because she will be losing some of her protein by removing these bubbles; or (b), if you get crystals, they will not be reproducible, because you deviated from the protocol too much.”
Sylvia looks distressed. They try to remove the bubbles. “Once you are off
the protocol, it’s really shaky,” Alex comments. (Alex, field note, group2)
As this field note shows, the division of labor in the molecular biology laboratory is not only a means of efficiently achieving experimental goals. It is also a means of hands-on learning. The purification of a selected protein has been assigned to Sylvia not because she would possess the necessary expertise to carry out the necessary experimental procedures— rather, it has been delegated to her to provide an occasion for hands-on learning. To purify “her” protein, Sylvia has to learn how to do it, and to do so she relies on Magnus’s supervision as well as on Alex’s help. Delegation, help and learning are key elements in the mode of collaboration that the molecular biology laboratory has adopted, and I will discuss each of them in the following.
Delegation is the primary means of coordinating research activity in the laboratory. What underlies delegation is the authority of scientific expertise, and therefore research tasks are typically delegated by senior lab members, that is, a lab leader or a subgroup leader, to less senior lab members. The lab leader, for example, assigns students to specific research projects and delegates their day-to-day supervision to the postdocs who take on the role of subgroup leaders, who coordinate the work of the junior students. In so doing, it is their responsibility to hold up scientific standards and guarantee the quality of all experimental steps performed. They do that by being present at the lab bench and making themselves available for consultation during most of the day. They also do that by enforcing a protocol, from which supervised junior scientists are not supposed to deviate without their consent. Yet, despite the hierarchical structure that underlies it, delegation in the molecular biology laboratory is typically phrased as suggestion or advice, and embedded in a participatory work culture.
Besides delegation, the molecular biology laboratory features many other instances of division of labor which neither involve a gradient in expertise nor authority. Often, labor is split up between group members in a benevolent tit for tat—group members help each other. Help is vital for the functioning of the laboratory, because experimental procedures are complex and stretch over long hours.
To help a colleague means to offer resources not currently at his or her disposal: physical strength (to help carry the nitrogen tank), a material object (a share of a chemical dilution prepared for “private use“), expertise (the know-how to run an experimental machine) or time (to look out after an experiment over the weekend). In a well-rehearsed team, help can be a quick fix in situations which have not been foreseen. When instruments are malfunctioning, when experiments go awry and time spent is mounting up, the willingness to help one another out is crucial. Help is vital in situations where those who are in need of support are in no position to delegate the task they are struggling with to someone else. In contrast to hierarchical delegation, help is asked for, not ordered. Help is based on solidarity, not on a hierarchy of expertise and authority.
Learning is another key element in the lab’s collaborative scientific practice, and lab members often help one another to learn. In a field where important knowledge consists in the embodied ability to manipulate organic samples literally hands-on, teaching involves demonstrating experimental procedures and overseeing and correcting their execution in situ. As experimental practice in molecular biology is collaborative, it is not just those who are taught, but also those who teach that profit from the collective effort to learn. After all, it is better to rely on skilled collaborators, and it is easy to trust a colleague’s skills if one has witnessed how these skills have been acquired.
What promotes learning in the molecular biology laboratory is the fact that all lab members work on projects, that is, proteins, that resemble one another in crucial ways. Collectively, lab members pursue a series of similar research interests. The seriality of their research enables them to learn from one another and to help each other, which facilitates supervision. Furthermore, all lab members have, or intend to acquire, roughly the same kind of expertise, which is, along with experimental techniques, ever evolving. Learning, from the perspective of junior scientists, is a way to overcome the hierarchy in expertise and authority that structures their relations to other lab members. As they continue to learn, junior scientists close the gap that separates them from the level of expertise that senior group members possess.
An exception to this rationale of learning is, curiously, the lab leader. Since he has not been working physically at the laboratory bench for the past few years, Johan has stopped learning to master new experimental routines (although he continues to learn about them). Instead, he focuses upon theoretical research perspectives and strategic management, an important part of which is the assessment and distribution of risk, that is, the possibility of experimental failure. This kind of specialization that “[...] involves the differentiation of theoretical activities on the one hand, and experimental activities on the other," and is tied to within-group hierarchy, has been called “vertical" specialization (Laudel, 2001, p. 764).