Planet Lab (The lesser known sequel to Planet Earth)…

…By Sophie / from the United Kingdom / PhD Tissue Repair / 4th Year

*David Attenborough voice:*

Hello, and welcome to this very special episode of Planet Lab where we will observe the scientist in their natural environment. Join us as we explore their varied habitats and delve into the strange and sometimes surprising habits of the PhD student.

Camera pans across a lab bench strewn with illegibly labelled eppendorfs, bits of parafilm, open pipette tip boxes and tube of antibody slowly thawing in a polystyrene box.

We come first to the small habitat, the bench space, where our PhD student is frantically pipetting indistinguishable liquids into a small plastic plate. Adept at using tools, they have developed these uniquely useless skills inapplicable outside this environment. See how their repetitive motions are almost machinelike, with little thought to them. It seems they have entirely forgotten the purpose of these actions and are now blindly following the paper in front of them.

Cut to next scene. The overwhelming whirr of the fume hood fills the windowless room, the camera follows a lab-coated figure as they collect numerous bottles, tubes and plates, initially spraying each individual item painstakingly with a translucent spray bottle, then seemingly getting bored and spritzing everything including themselves liberally until all is slightly damp.

With the smell of ethanol fresh in their nostrils, our PhD student enacts a curious ritual with these orange-topped flasks. Their movement from one large container to another and the replacement of coloured liquid is at once intriguing and incredibly dull.

The living cells within offer no nutrition, no entertainment and, often, no data. A strange pet to have chosen, we do not fully understand what the PhD student gains from this relationship, but it is clear that it is extremely important, as they visit every 2-3 days to provide nutrition to these tiny creatures, even at the expense of their own personal time.

Screen cuts to black… or so it seems. A small white light illuminates a drained face with wide eyes, fixed on to a computer that slowly comes into focus. The dotted marks on the screen, however, do not come into focus. The imaging is not going well.

Here we join our student in one of the darkest of their habitats. The blackness of the microscope may be to protect the immunofluorescent slides, but it also serves to lull the PhD student into a stupor akin to intoxication. All time is lost here in the darkness, the slow flicker of the laser instead acting as the second hand of a clock counting down the minutes until the student must vacate to make room for the next user. They adjust and then re-adjust settings, muttering “real or artefact?” under their breath, though it is unclear who they expect to answer.

Wide shot of a room filled with lines of chairs, people seated and facing a large projected screen. In front stands a more-smartly-dressed-than-normal figure, small beads of sweat forming on their forehead.

Much like the lone gazelle on the savannah, the PhD student stands alone while the circling predators look on. Instead of the desire to pull flesh from bone however, the predators’ minds are filled with the desire to pull sub-par statistics from Graphpad graphs. Our student is talking loudly despite their dry mouth and is using a laser pointer to gesture despite their shaking hand. As they reach their conclusion slide they visibly brace as hands are raised. One predator – or PI as they are known in this habitat – makes more of a comment than a question but no-one seems to mind.

……

Join us next time on Planet Lab where we will revisit our student in a new habitat, the ‘desk’ where we will discover how much they have to snack in order to cope with analysis sessions.


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