Science Articles

Stress and the Scientist

Tue, 28th Mar 2006

Mary O'Neill

Lab benchIn scientific research most of the major stresses are outside our control; we cannot influence factors such as referee opinions, funding applications or difficult experiments, so really there is no point in worrying about them (seriously there isn't). I want to suggest that a major cause of stress in our lives is the people we work with. In most labs there are people who misuse equipment and others who take the last tube of reagent and don't reorder. As for our bosses - enough said! They are either locked in an office writing grant applications or they are peering over our shoulders asking stupid questions like "have you got any results to show me?"

This article illustrates the kind of scientist you might encounter in a lab. Understanding how your colleagues think and behave is useful, and in observing their Achilles heel you know what to expect when things get stressful. There is also a strong possibility you may recognise yourself too, so beware!

1. Weird and Whacky Consider the "mad scientist" of popular fiction, someone so obsessed with their subject that they forget to dress and show up to the lab in their pyjamas. Without wishing to indulge in stereotypes there are scientists who are highly creative and imaginative, it's just that you do wonder when the Mother Ship is going to come and collect them. On a good day they are self sufficient, enjoy thinking laterally and are great at finding ingenious ways of tackling a difficult piece of research. On a bad day they are withdrawn, uncommunicative and wearing their corduroy bellbottoms for the 400th consecutive day. They hate small talk and that includes a cheery "Good Morning" so they normally end up working the grave yard shift simply to avoid people. It is quite common for their group leaders to think these scientists have left and gone to work elsewhere.

2. The Charm Offensive These scientists are wonderfully charming, very dynamic and successful; and they'll never tire of telling you so. They form collaborations easily and will network with all the major research minds in the field until they have got themselves noticed. We may think they are smarmy and lacking scientific rigour but these guys can work a conference like a politician at a convention. Charm Offensive scientists become stressed by the threat of being "pipped at the post" by the perceived competition. Under competitive circumstances they really turn up the pressure and while they imagine they are being motivating and encouraging, others in the group who are in the unfortunate position of working for them may wonder if galley slaves really did have it this good!

3. Pride and Prejudice Here we have a brilliant scientist with a sharp analytical mind, a born sceptic who will think through every experiment to the n'th detail. They test every parameter and always include controls! They have a tendency to think they are the best but in reality they are tedious spooks who trust nobody. Unlike Dr. Charm, they don't collaborate mainly because they don't actually trust people and are scared they might be cheated. Bearing in mind that the average collaboration is going to be instigated by a Dr. Charm this may not be a bad strategy. If they feel that someone is trying to get one over on them or undermine them then this heightens the mistrust. They become very controlling and secretive and start building a secret store of their own reagents: so that's where they go - in case you're wondering.

4. Moaning Minnie Every lab has one of these guys, a great sense of humour and a biting wit. Actually, make that raging sarcasm; they loathe everybody but are just far too passive to say or do anything directly. They are very good at trouble shooting and their insight makes them very good at spotting the mistake that needs to be rectified. In other words, since they won't point out your faults, they spot the flaws in your work and deliver their verdict under the guise of "constructive criticism". Of course they never clear up after themselves but will throw a hissy fit if they find equipment in a "dirty" state until they realise they were the last people to use it. They will tolerate an unpleasant job or a vicious boss and whinge for years but they will not change their situation. It's taken them years to get this miserable and they'll be dammed if they are going to try and be happy.

5 Perfectly Serious This is another scientist with really high exacting standards and for whom the words "good enough" are an insult. They expect nothing less than perfection from you or themselves. They produce high quality work and pay meticulous attention to detail and will work long hours with very little time for fun and enjoyment. You may actually hear them say "my job is my hobby." Yes these are the sad souls who work late in the lab, have few friends and no social life. Their bench will be spotless; every tube labelled accurately in minute writing and their lab books will be properly catalogued with an index.

6 The Social Scientist These people probably don't last too long in the lab since the insular environment and lack of social life is a big downer for these guys. They are "Party People", they love social interaction, and the Friday night trip to the pub for two pints of "Old Peculiar" and an informal lab meeting is not their idea of a good time. In the lab they will talk to everybody and know everybody's business. They are great listeners and know all the relevant and juicy gossip, and with a Dr Charm there will be gossip! They are helpful to the point of their own inconvenience. In fact months can go by before they get round to doing their own work. They hate to be ignored or criticised - if this happens they then become even more emotional and get very excitable. They are prone to tantrums and sulks and will throw things about the room so those safety goggles will be useful after all!

Mixing and Matching. So who gets on with whom? In theory the Charm Offensive scientist will be able to schmooze his way round everybody, he is charming and will effortlessly mix and mingle. The reality is most people think he is an egotistical Casanova with a scant grasp of morality. Dr Pride will loathe him, she doesn't trust all that smooth talking baloney. Moaning Minnie is secretly envious of his success. She knows his flaws and can't wait to see him fall on his face. She and Dr Pride spend countless hours planning a vicious end to Dr Charm, normally something involving the Phenol waste. However the sociable social scientist thinks he is great fun and they will probably spend many a happy hour drinking and gossiping in the bar. In reality he is filching her ideas and getting her to do his research for him! Dr. Perfect and Dr Weird will get on well together. They are going to be working late anyway and will toil harmoniously in the quiet solitude of the lab conversing in their native Klingon.

Research Heaven and Research Hell Every one of the scientists mentioned will bring richness to a research group. You need the ingenious ideas of Dr. Weird, and the razor sharp mind of Dr Pride. Dr. Charm knows how to get the best from people. Dr. Moan is essential for trouble shooting problems. The helpful cheeriness of Dr. Sociable will keep the group happy and the high standards of Dr. Perfect will ensure that the lab is committed to excellence...

OK, that was the Fairytale research group. The reality goes something like this:

It is time to apply for a major grant; it is a time for focus and hard work, so stress levels are up. Dr Perfect becomes even more obsessed than usual, and starts doing ritualistic things like switching off all the electrical equipment since he has a fear of fire. As a result he switches off a critical gel of Moaning Minnie's (well she didn't leave a laminated "please leave on" note on the apparatus). This "catastrophe" according to Minnie, sets her work back 6 weeks (2 days actually) and causes whinging on a scale of Wagnerian proportions, behind Dr. Perfect's back of course. Dr Pride gets suspicious of Dr. Perfect and his strange "switching off" behaviour and Dr. Moan is just a bit too jittery; she figures they could sabotage her work. So she starts locking her lab book in the drawer, hides away the enzyme stocks and relabels all her solutions in a secret code only she will understand. Dr Sociable senses the disquiet, tries to calm everyone down and organises a trip to the pub. No one shows up. This she sees as a rejection and after everything she has done for this group she bursts into tears and starts throwing beakers. Dr. Weird stopped talking three days ago; he is now secured in the dark room and is refusing to come out. Things finally hit the buffers when the police arrive looking for Dr Charm; seemingly he has absconded to the Bahamas with the Head of Section's wife and a large sum of money siphoned off from the research grant! Welcome to Research Group Hell!

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