My day-job

“Hey, what is it you do?” The pub is called De Blaffende Vis(1), it occupies a street corner in the old Jordaan quarter. Wearing cycle gear I sip a wheat beer when a former team mate asks me the question. I used to play football but after the ligaments in my right knee gave way, I was forced to change sport. The football-injury kept me three months from the laboratory bench and since, encouraged by the surgeon who operated on me, I speed around on my racing bicycle. This activity can be pretty solitary though; so sometimes I drop by the Vis to meet up with my football buddies and enjoy their Saturday afternoon banter.

They laugh at my pinkish outfit with black slippers normally worn by elderly women in hot hilly Portuguese cities. These cheap, knitted shoes release quickly from the toe-clips of my ten-year old Peugeot, which comes in handy in Amsterdam, a disturbed beehive of ringing streetcars, hooting traffic-jams, and blind pedestrians walking in front of unpredictable cyclists. On my way to the pub the spring air begins to turn heavy with a thundery smell. A couple of hours later, after the pub stop, I ride through the flat wetlands north of the city, a breeding ground for many birds: A couple of curlews potter at the far end of a meadow, a ditch with a prying blue heron, and shrieking lapwings that dive down to scare a curious lamb away from their nests. Long orange beaks of oyster-catchers stick above the grass in a field where I once spotted a white spoonbill. On the dike from Uitdam, the sensation of cycling through rain: prickly drops against my legs, arms and head. But it is still dry, I bore through a swarm of mosquitoes. Not surprising, the marshes nearby, combined with this heat. Grey storm clouds clog the south-western horizon with the sun peeking around the edge painting contrasts that smother upcoming tiredness. Nearby, fresh green colours light up against the threatening weather front. Waves sparkle in front of me on the Ijsselmeer where sails no longer dot the surface. The warm head-wind has driven the bird-cries out of my ears....

“What is it you do?” I was asked. This is a difficult question for a biochemist, a gene-tinkerer, a bacteria-cooker and a yeast-sniffer. Thus, I postpone my answer.... It feels odd to explain my laboratory job to a lawyer. For him university life seems dull with no money nor pace. Or do I only imagine that those are his thoughts? Strangely enough, neither a file-eater like him, nor the economists, the advertisers or publishers from my team describe how they spend their day. Not because they are lazy, but just because it seems obvious: “I want to do more civil law, that is not happening in my firm in Den Helder. I’ve been there for almost two years now. Time to move on.” That is all I hear. He has said enough, apparently. Everyone knows what it is to be a lawyer, a manager, or a salesman. Only the messy researcher, who reads, experiments and thinks according to his own plan, seems obliged to justify his salary and how precious tax payers’ money is spent. He feels the urge to tell that his activities are useful in many ways, that there is more to an experiment than to see if the cloning worked...... whether yeast cells can cope with the resulting RNA molecule... and that this can be processed to a functional part of their ribosomes, the protein-factories of all organisms. His work entails more than finding information that will form a building block for a theory, a model for a fundamental biological process and link in the chain of life.

A vacant glaze washes over many a listeners’ face before they wake up: “Chemistry’s beyond me!” More often, responses to the word ‘cloning’ interrupt the story: “Isn’t that scary?” or “What can you do with it? Can you make a medicine now?” An inward sigh, elicited by these questions, compels the lab-resident to further explanation where the publisher normally flags the Cosmopolitan or Donald Duck. The adman would point out their successful campaign for hyperabsorbent nappies and the lawyer tells how he protected the patent for a toothpaste from infringement. Their work results in an evident outcome, profit or benefit. Thus, the researcher is addressed to assert his usefulness; moreover, as a biochemist, with all those public issues echoing back from his profession’s products. Drugs-resistant bugs, Dolly or GM-foods.

How to wriggle out of this? Will it work to describe the topic of my research with expressive metaphors? Shall I tell how the studied RNA molecule can be represented as a long string that is being cut into segments? Sometimes I take this course, weave my subject-matter into a rope which is not extended but entangled, and explain that the folds contain signals for scissors acting from the outside. To complicate matters, the scissors do not really notice a rope but, on closer inspection, see a beaded string of four different colours. Apart from the folding, the scissors also recognize certain colour-combinations as their target. Furthermore, the string of beads is hung with sticky lumps which could influence the effect of the scissors as well. All these aspects build a maze of questions through which we try to find our way. Blindfolded. Slowly, leaving Ariadne’s clue behind to retrace our steps when we hit a dead-end. Which happens regularly.

This puzzlement exposes another thread in the story. The uncertainty inherent to research can be described. How this carries over into your perspective of life, because the facts always let you stumble and teach you that the world cannot be constructed. How well you have formulated the hypothesis, more often than not the wall of the labyrinth pushes you into a different direction. The theory needs revision and your perception changes. That’s why you become suspicious and ask critical questions. Are my observations correct? Did I overlook any important crossroads? You learn to register many details, though not everything will be scrutinized. Nevertheless, knowing the possibility makes it easier to go back to the intersection you first ignored but now need to consider. You want to move onwards despite the blockade, even if that means you have to return some steps along the winding road. Such analytical skills, tailored to maintain an open mind for all sorts of peculiarities, are great assets. They kill your prejudices, an outcome of fundamental research that serves any democracy.

Yet, that reaches far when you have just downed half a pint, so you simplify the image or talk about something else, like the duplicity of research-doubt. Going through the maze you build a theory en route, but as navigation aid you use complex biological systems in the experiments designed to test a hypothesis. These tools are not foolproof. Therefore, every experiment should check that the biological methods are working properly. Still, experiments frequently don’t give a good result. For whatever odd reason. Often, an experimental outcome leaves you with questions. Nonetheless, every successful step, however small in the series towards a finding worth mentioning, is reassuring. A result that pats you on the back and says: “Well done pal, another problem solved!”.

For this kind of appraisal you don’t need a boss. It makes research objective. Results count and give satisfaction to stay motivated, which makes you less dependent on the opinion of others. As experiments easily go wrong, mistakes are taken for granted. Freedom is thus created apart from the ever lasting doubt. “Will it work?” or “Do I really see what I think I see?”, are questions you ask yourself as often as you say: “Come on, let’s start afresh. We have to, otherwise we won’t get an understandable answer to our questions.” Through disappointments and hopeful progressions you start to appreciate the daily play with tubes, beasties and colleagues who share the same, scarce equipment. Without any fun the voyage loses spirit. You must experience how the process of doing research gives more fulfilment than the ultimate result, the accepted publication. Findings evoke new questions, hence the experimentation continues. The process enforces optimism, because in its absence perseverance through the labyrinth cannot be sustained. Just as described in Chapter 26 of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the art of motor maintenance.

Unfortunately, after the second glass such references make no impact. However, my tale of uncertainty raises comments: “Well, that’s not for me, if you can’t rely on expectations.” You see, that is the name of the game and the challenge. Interesting surprises are guaranteed. It won’t get boring. “Though, something has to work. Does that happen?” Certainly, after a while it does. By practice you obtain a skill with which most problems are eventually tackled. Observe a row of people fishing for flounders and see how one of them grabs a worm with stretched fingers and carefully hooks it. Then, at the little and ring fingers pointing away, you recognize the capable molecular biologist who is used to open minuscule reaction tubes and can handle droplets of one millionth litre without contamination.

“Huh?!... Do you want another Hoegaarden?!” I decline, it is getting late and I want to complete my ride before dark. I jump onto my bicycle and sprint towards ferry and fields, along verges with scented cow parsley and where dandelions have finished flowering. My spoilt knee joint still hinges fine... I could have told much more, snatches of thoughts show the effect of the beer... Researchers turn grey before their thirties, because they get trapped by external pressure, by the expectations of others or are solely driven by the ultimate result. Or turn selfish when they can only appreciate their own work and play down the contribution of others. ...Researchers stay enthusiastic because they learn like children, by playing and doing. They put their doubts aside and just begin with their collaborators. According to their talents and expertise they divide the tasks amongst each other and gather in the harvest as a team...celebrate their publications together.... Luckily, my tipsy legs keep pedalling tirelessly. They should do, with that strong breeze from behind.

(1) translates as The Barking Fish

Translation by author (Oct. 1999, Oct. 2004, Jan. 2005)
published in Dutch as: Wat doe je zoal?
Natuur en Techniek (1995) 63: 3, 212-217.
(Now: Natuurwetenschap en Techniek,