Fun and Laughter in the Lab

coverThis week we have a guest post from Dr. Gail M. Seigel. I recently bought Gail’s book, ‘Academania: My Life in the Trenches of Biomedical Research’, which recounts some of her experiences from her 25+ year research career. You can buy it here. Gail’s book happens to have an entire chapter about having fun in the lab, so I asked her to do a guest post and start a conversation about having fun in the lab! Follow Gail on Twitter @eyedoc333.

I am thrilled to be an invited guest blogger this week for Academia Obscura. As a matter of professional introduction, I am a retinal cell biologist at SUNY Buffalo with 25+ years experience in biomedical research. I am a firm believer in working hard, but having as much fun as possible while doing so. With all of the bad news these days of funding cuts, low wages and poor job security, we all need to lighten up sometimes and have a good laugh.


Buff the Gerbil

When Academia Obscura asked for photos of “Academics with Cats” on Twitter, I was the one who posted a photo of “Academics with Gerbils” just to be contrary. That’s how I roll.

Here is an excerpt from the book, from the chapter entitled “Lab Hijinks”:

Sometimes we scientists need a break from the serious work of the lab, especially during the challenges of graduate school. The long hours and delayed gratification of long-term experiments can inspire us to do silly things to break up the tedium and I am no exception.

It was April Fools’ Day and there were two large goldfish swimming in our lab’s 10-liter buffer dialysis tank. My thesis advisor had once joked that although the dialysis tank was empty at the time, one day there would be fish swimming in it. I made sure that his prediction would come true. Not to worry, though. Once the prank was over, I brought the goldfish home as pets and named them Src and Myc, two oncogenes that I was studying at the time. Src and Myc went on to live happy goldfish lives and the dialysis tank was used for experiments once again.

Many people wonder what it’s like to work in a lab on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes, it can be very serious. At other times, it can resemble a comedy sketch. Imagine bright yellow masking tape with the word “radioactive” in red lettering. It is normally used as a warning label for experiments that involve radiation. But if the tape is cut in half, the word “radio” becomes evident, ready to stick on the portable stereo system used for background music in the lab.

I think being able to laugh at ourselves can help get us through some of the darkest times. My happiest memories of graduate school are not of the exams, but of the lightheartedness and human-ness of the people around me. I may have forgotten fermentation pathways, but I’ll always remember the bacterial plate streaked in the pattern of a good-natured farewell: “GO AWAY, LARRY” and presented to a fellow student upon graduation. I’ve also forgotten the Krebs cycle but I still remember a lab’s proud display of plasticware that had been accidentally melted into contorted modern sculptures by the intense heat of the autoclave cycle.

The funniest things can happen without even a conscious effort on anyone’s part. I’m still amused by the thought of proof-reading a student’s thesis before the age of auto-correct and finding the phrase “picnic acid” instead of “picric acid”. Another time, while scheduling a meeting with a visiting scientist named Dr. Fu, I had to spell the scientist’s name on the phone. I became red-faced and apologetic as I told the caller, “F-U”. It doesn’t take much to find humor in the nooks and crannies of every day life, academic or otherwise.

snowmanI will leave you with a visual prank. This one is a snowman made from lab ice, a conical tube and aluminum foil. When a co-worker dumped ice into the lab sink and declared, “Someone should make a snowman out of this!” How could I not?

You must have your own stories of academic tomfoolery, pranks and silliness: we would love to read all about them! Tweet using the hashtag #LabLaughs and share your stories. And remember: Have fun, but be safe!

If you want more about lab hijinks, as well as stories of plagiarism, sabotage and academic mayhem, check out Gail’s book, ‘Academania: My Life in the Trenches of Biomedical Research‘.

Beards in Academia, Part II: More Popular than Ever? Beards and Masculinity in History

This post originally appeared over at Dr Alun Withey’s blog Follow him on twitter @DrAlun.


Hipster Beard
Credit: Come2England

This week came the startling revelation that, in the past year, manufacturers of razors and related goods such as shaving foam, have seen a drop in sales of more than £72 million pounds. Market analysts IRI noted that men’s shopping habits were changing and, even though the total market still accounted for 2.2 billion pounds, this was a substantial dent. The cause of this change? Beards.

BAFTA Film Awards 2013: George Clooney Ben Affleck
Credit: Ian West/PA

Nobody can have failed to notice in recent months the ubiquity of facial hair. Keep your eyes open as you walk down your local high street and you will probably notice a variety of styles, with the ‘Amish’ style seemingly especially popular. It is also interesting how newsworthy beards are. Just look at how often they have appeared as a topic for discussion in recent months. The furore caused by Jeremy Paxman’s beard for example. There were lengthy discussions about celebrity beards at the Baftas in 2013, and now the economic revelations about how much the beard is costing.

This current beard trend is actually very interesting. Over the past 10 years or so beards have been less in vogue. There have been ‘spikes’ of beardedness but these have tended to be of short duration – sometimes only a matter of months. But this latest outcrop of beards has already lasted the better part of eighteen months. By early summer 2013 the idea of ‘peak beard’ was already being put forward. Quoting the head of a major British barbering company, the Guardian suggested that “beards are more popular than ever…there’s a beard culture – people like talking about their beards, feeling their beards’. Now, in September 2014, passion for beards shows little sign of abating and, in many ways, appears to be going from strength to strength.

It is also interesting to note how economics have begun to intrude into the argument. By anyone’s yardstick £72 million is a large chunk of revenue to be lost to what some people see as an irrelevance – something everyday, quirky…even repulsive. In reality though beards have never been anything less than central to men’s conceptions of themselves. Faces, after all, are the most public part of us. The way we present ourselves to others involves all manner of things, from clothing to cosmetics, but the face is the ultimate index of character. The decision to shave, cover or adorn the face has implications for how we see ourselves and wish to be seen by others. Beards actually matter. Quite a lot. And they always have done.

Over the centuries beard trends tended to last for decades. It’s perfectly possible to identify an historical period by its beard hair. Think of sixteenth-century England. The Tudor ‘Spade beard’ was the order of the day. This was the long, oblong outgrowth of facial topiary sported by kings, princes and elites. Doubtless it made its way a lot further down the social scale too. This type of beard is evident in Holbein’s paintings. Not all Tudor men embraced the beard though. Men like Thomas More was a clean-shaven, perhaps in line with his austere lifestyle. Thomas Cranmer was clean-shaven but, it is said, grew a beard as a symbol of his grief upon the death of Henry and of his break with the past. In this sense the beard was a turning point in his life.

Young Cranmer

Young Cranmer
Credit: Gerlach Flicke via National Portrait Gallery, London/Wikipedia

Old Cranmer!

Old Cranmer!
Credit: unknown artist, via Wikipedia

In the seventeenth century Stuart monarchs preferred small, pointed ‘Van Dyke’ beards. Charles I and Royalist ‘Cavaliers’ often sported this type of facial hair together with flowing locks. Masculinity here was remarkably feminine, with flowing, diaphanous gowns and silk breeches the order of the day. Contrast this with Puritans who generally went clean-shaven, believing beards to be a mere bauble. One argument about the origins of the term ‘roundhead’ is that it referred to the shape of the head after the beard and hair had been shaved – a popular parliamentarian style – rather than the shape of helmets.


A Roundhead
Credit: John Pettie via Wikipedia

Victorian men, after 1850, were characterised by their huge bushy beards. After nearly a century of being clean shaven British men were exalted by a range of new publications with names like Why Shave? which sought to convince them that shaving was little less than a crime against God and nature. The beard was the ultimate symbol of masculinity, and something used as a tool to prove to men that their position of superiority over women was justified. More than this, it was argued, beards had health benefits that simply couldn’t be ignored. They acted as filters to keep germs away from the nose and throat. (See my other post on Victorian beard health).

In the twentieth century, at least up until around 1950, moustaches were much more in vogue. Charlie Chaplin’s ‘toothbrush’ moustache was a cultural icon. Whether or not (as is sometimes suggested) Adolf Hitler grew his because of Chaplin, whose work he admired, is another matter, but the military moustache was a staple of the first decades of the century, from British Tommies to the emblematic RAF pilot’s moustache.

Mighty Beard

Mighty Beard

There are many other important aspects to beards. Growing a beard has been an important marker of life stage; the transition from adolescence to adulthood. The first shave is a virtual rite of passage for a teenage boy. On the other hand, in the past, the ‘beardless boy’ has been a symbol of immaturity or even of a lack of sexual prowess.

Indeed the ability to grow a beard has been central to conceptions of masculinity through time. In the early modern period the lack of a beard was viewed in humoural medical terms as the result of a lack of heat in the ‘reins’ and therefore a lack of sexual potency. Men who had a thin, scanty beard were open to suspicion of effeminacy (in the early modern sense literally meaning that they had feminine characteristics). In the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries, so central was the moustache to military regiments that men unable to grow one were expected to wear a false moustache made of goats hair.

The management of facial hair says much about how men view themselves. During the enlightenment the mark of a civilized man was a clean-shaven face. To be bearded signified loss of control over the self and a rugged masculinity that was not elegant or refined. After 1850, however, as I have noted, the fashion was for huge beards, which were seen then as the ultimate symbol of God-given male authority. In this sense it was the emblem of the Victorian man.

How d'ye like me?

How d’ye like me?
Source: Wikipedia

After 1900 with the burgeoning market for shaving apparel and cosmetics the situation became even more complex. It is also noteworthy that the pace of change has quickened. Where beard trends used to last decades, since the 80s they have become more fleeting – probably a result of internet-driven celebrity culture.

If all this is true, what does the current vogue for facial hair tell us about men today? What ideal of masculinity are men in 2014 aspiring to? It is difficult to say. Unlike in the past it is harder to track changes in masculine ideal as they are now much more transitory. Nonetheless, one of the constants has been emulation. In the early modern period monarchs provided a bearded (or indeed clean-shaven) ideal. By the Victorian period powerful and fashionable figures, and new types of industrial and military heroes, offered men something to aspire to. Now, with almost unlimited access to the lives of celebrities through the voracious media and internet, the opportunities to find fashion ‘heroes’ to emulate are almost limitless. The question now is how long this trend will last and, perhaps more interesting, will there be a backlash against the beard? History suggests so.

DrAlunThis post originally appeared over at Dr Alun Withey’s blog Follow him on twitter @DrAlun.

Every Type of Email College Faculty Send to Anyone

This post originally appeared over at The Tattooed Professors blog. Follow him on twitter @TheTattooedProf.

Last week, my Twitter and Facebook feeds were full of links to The Toast’s hilarious piece, “Every Type of Email College Students Send Their Professors.” The best satire is that which rings of truth, and this piece was no exception. Gems like “hey professor i have 97 grandmothers, all dead, i will not be in class for the rest of the semester” hit pretty near the mark, based upon my experience (all students begin emails with “hey” for some reason).

But then I got to thinking…there’s one group that is worse in the aggregate than students at email, and that group is FACULTY. Face it, colleagues, we’ve got precious little room to laugh at students’ online foibles. Because we suck, too. In that spirit, drawn from the sometimes-humorous, sometimes-depressing, always-unique trove of experience, I present Every Type of Email College Faculty Send:

  • Tomorrow’s development committee meeting has been moved to today at 3. Please come to my office to meet, and bring hard copies of the agenda, which I am attaching to this email.” →  → “Sorry I forgot to attach the agenda. Try it now.” →→ “I don’t know what you’re talking about–I attached the document”→→ “Some of you have told me you still can’t open the attachment. I used WordPerfect. If you don’t have this software, I will be bringing extra copies to the meeting, which is today at 2.
  • I see you have me scheduled for a 10 0’clock class in [Building X]. I cannot teach in this building, as I use slate chalkboards, and these rooms are equipped only with whiteboards. I am uncomfortable teaching with this new technology.
  • Dear colleagues, I am sorry for the previous message that came from my account. That language was not meant to go to everyone; I don’t know the difference between “reply” and “reply all.” You should know that I actually am a supporter of institutional assessment. Please delete the last message, Thank you.
  • Dear [Work-Study Student], please make 350 double-sided copies of the attached pdf, which is a blurry, photocopy-of-a-photocopy that has many intricate charts. Place it in my mailbox by noon today, please.    PS–staple in the top right corner; the copier staples in the top left, and as I am left-handed, this makes it harder for me to turn the pages.
  • Dear IT staff, I require personal assistance from you in configuring my Outlook E-mail. In particular, I want to change the font on my emails. I do not do well with technology instructions via email or telephone. Please send someone over ASAP.
  • Dear Blackboard admin., I accidentally deleted a whole column of student grades from the gradebook. I know I got prompt boxes that asked me if I was sure I wanted to delete, and something about unrecoverable files, but I just click ‘yes’ by default on those things anyway. Please go in and recover these files for me.   PS–You might be wondering what specific class I’m talking about. I am going to forget to include that information here.
  • Dear {Registrar}, Your previous message referred to a form I was supposed to submit last month for catalog revisions for my department’s courses. I don’t check email more than once a week, so I’m disappointed that no one delivered a hard copy to me so I could lose it and then request another one anyway. Can you hold the other catalog revisions while I perform this ritual several more times?
  • Dear [Junior Professor], I noticed you dismissed your 3 o’clock MWF class 5 minutes early last Friday. This is not departmental practice–we keep our students for the entire class in order to maximize the time we have to deliver our content. As a result of you violating an unwritten rule that you didn’t know about, a letter has been placed in your departmental file. Which you also don’t know about.
  • Dear student, I know you came by my office during office hours, but since no one ever comes by, I usually go get coffee at that time. You could leave me a voicemail, but I never erase messages, so my mailbox is full. Try emailing me–I will have an unhelpfully vague response to you by week’s end.

I’m sure many of you have encountered these (sent these?) before. Oh, academe. You’re the gift that keeps on giving. Don’t ever stop.

The Tattooed ProfessorThis post originally appeared over at The Tattooed Professors blog. Follow him on twitter @TheTattooedProf.