Suggestions for books on what it's like to work in a biology lab?
February 17, 2019 11:29 AM   Subscribe

Hi there, I'm interested in learning what it's like to work in a biology lab as a scientist (researcher/postdoc/PI - whatever). I steered away from the sciences as an undergrad so I don't really know much about the process and what scientists DO. I'd like to find some books/narratives that would help me learn what actually happens in a biology lab. For instance, I think I know what pipetting is.

What books would help me learn what the experience is like? I'd prefer more narrative than details about the exact research that's done. I really just want to know what it's like to do that kind of work.

The two books I've found so far: Egg and Ego - JMW Slack and At the Bench - Kathy Barker. They seem fine, but the first is a bit dated and the second seems more of a "This is what a pipette does." Which is good! But maybe more narrative?

What books am I missing? Are these are even helpful for a nonscientist to learn what lab science is about? Any thoughts welcome.
posted by mulkey to Science & Nature (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I can't think of anything in particular at the moment but I will direct you towards and especially this list of novels.
posted by quaking fajita at 11:38 AM on February 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Biology is a HUGE field. Are you thinking a biomedical lab or genetics or forensics or ecology or biochem or what? Research or applied? Very different tasks are carried out.

Also the time frame. 20 years ago working in a genetics lab was quite involved and required knowing a lot of different techniques. Nowadays you mostly just cut a piece off whatever you want to test and put it in a machine. They don't even have reagents anymore in a lot of labs.
posted by fshgrl at 12:15 PM on February 17, 2019

It sounds like maybe you don’t have a lot of specific questions yet, but I am a biologist (approximately post doc level, though I’m in industry at a start up that doesn’t have titles like that) and I have worked in a number of different types of labs (neuro, biochemistry, developmental, cell, histology) and I’d be happy to talk about my experiences if you’d like to MeMail me.
posted by Illuminated Clocks at 12:27 PM on February 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Someone I knew who worked in a bio lab told me that Intuition by Allegra Goodman was the best depiction of lab politics that she'd read. I have no firsthand knowledge but I really enjoyed the book as a novel. But it's set in the 80s, and even the book itself is now probably 15 years old, so the technology would be all off now.
posted by pierogi24 at 12:27 PM on February 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Thanks y'all! You're accurate in saying I don't have a detailed question, I'm just wading into the territory of trying to understand the world of biology labs and I'm not too good at knowing the differences between the subfields yet.

The novels are all helpful. Very much appreciated.

@Illuminated Clocks, thanks SO much for your offer. I may well take you up on that but perhaps after I've done some of this reading!
posted by mulkey at 12:38 PM on February 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren has been on my to-read for years. My fellow biologists have really enjoyed her story about her life getting into and working as a botanist.
posted by hydrobatidae at 12:41 PM on February 17, 2019 [12 favorites]

I came in to recommend Lab Girl! I worked in a marine sciences lab for two years and loved how honestly she described the lab experience, the good and frustrating and amazing. She works in a variety of labs too so it covers quite a bit.

And if you’re ever interested in what a marine biology lab from the early 2000 was like you (or anyone else here!) can memail me, it was a lot of fun and I accidentally destroyed very few important things in the autoclave.
posted by lepus at 2:41 PM on February 17, 2019

I work at a university and we have open houses and tours on a semi-regular basis. I have given tours to townies or prospective students/parents who basically walked into our office and were curious to see a Real Science Lab and seemed likely to listen to rules about touching and goggles, and had appropriate clothes on. So my vote is to find a local college or CC or university, find a department, and maybe contact the department secretary to ask if they have open houses or would be willing to give a tour to a curious civilian. Seeing stuff in person makes a lot more sense, I think.

(I will say that an animal facility is MUCH LESS likely to do this for a variety of reasons, but they will also be less googleable in the first place. Also, contacting a professor directly may or may not work depending on how busy they are.)

There are a lot of biologists on Twitter who post all kinds of day-to-day things and answer questions as part of their scicomm work. I can trawl my follows for recommendations if you use that platform at all.
posted by tchemgrrl at 4:12 PM on February 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

I also came here to recommend Intuition by Allegra Goodman. That book is so fucking good - it captures the different strata (grad student v. postdoc v. lab tech v. PI) while also highlighting the tons of existential crises occurring in a lab w>hile also telling a great story. The story wrestles with one of the principal struggles of a scientist, trying to discern between real phenomena and the phenomena that would be most beneficial for your career if observed and verified.
posted by thelastpolarbear at 7:12 PM on February 17, 2019

Intuition is pretty great. I also recommend the non-fiction Natural Obsessions by Natalie Angier - the methods are now out of date, but the depiction of science and the nuts and bolts of being in a lab are probably the best I've read, and it captures some of the tensions when you're in a competitive field.
posted by penguinliz at 9:07 PM on February 17, 2019

I’m glad someone mentioned Intuition, I was thinking of it but could not recall the title. I started reading it just before I finished grad school and I needed to set it aside as it was cutting far too close to the bone.
posted by tchemgrrl at 4:52 AM on February 18, 2019

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