Time at the Bench

A recent editorial in Cancer Biology and Therapy by Scott Kern about the passion of today’s scientist prompted several blog responses. The In the Pipeline post has over 100 comments and ChemJobber’s entry was also popular. It can be quickly surmised there are some strong feelings on this subject and many commentators take issue with Professor Kern’s position. I’m not going to retread that ground here. But since it is the subject of the moment, it can form at least the background of my blog today.

I never had great plans to be the best ever scientist growing up – that clearly required dedication beyond what I was willing to put into a career – but I did want to work in science and do a job that was interesting and inspiring. In any case I was pretty good at the subjects, especially chemistry, so I began the track towards the higher degrees. As I said, I was not hoping to be an Oxford professor (or Ivy League scholar), but I commited myself to the work required to attain those degrees. The group in graduate school was of a decent size and at least my particular corner of it subscribed to a work hard play hard type of mentality which has persisted with me to this day. The idea here is that you work hard at the bench, put the time in, but then when the day was done and it was time to relax and enjoy the rest of life, that was what we would do. So I never did ridiculous hours as a rule and would work late when a part of the project needed it, but once that push was over, the regular routine would resume. I see this as important. When things need an extra push, you need that extra effort, but if you are already exerting yourself to the max, what then? Time away from the lab is equally important to recharge the batteries, let things work themselves through in your head. Taking a step back sometimes to assess your position means you can keep the bigger picture in mind as you work.

The other point is that it is unhealthy not to do so. We are not automatons and need rest – and I don’t just mean sleep, then back to work. A research project is not a sprint, it is a marathon. You have to pace yourself in order to reach the finish. And unlike a road race, you have to make sure you can run it all again in the same way.

So my philosophy of bench time is that you need to put in your time, but take advantage of the down-time to relax. Taking the time to do it right, unhurried and focused. When the day’s work is done (and I am generally setting myself a goal of what point I want to reach during a given day) then you can stop, go home and enjoy the rest of your life for a while. The bench will be there waiting when you get back.

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