Trolley days: a technician’s search for meaning in the mundane

First appeared in the IST newsletter (17th July 2018).

As I collect deliveries from reception I sometimes wonder whether all technicians have a favourite trolley. I am slightly embarrassed to admit that I do. Its wheels are not too big and not too small, it has good shelf spacing, and it fits perfectly in the nearest lift – I guard it possessively. However, like any relationship it can be difficult if we spend too much time together moving equipment between rooms, removing waste from the laboratory, or picking up deliveries from the stores. Sometimes I enjoy these ‘trolley days’; quiet, mindless days when I lose myself in my own thoughts pushing my trolley around. However, more often than not trolley days get to me. It might be the mindlessness of it that encroaches on my sanity or the futility of the task, knowing that there will always be more deliveries to move, more waste to take away, more deliveries to collect. Most jobs have their own version of trolley days and this is a technician’s perspective their mundanity.

My favourite trolley
My favourite trolley

Trolley days often remind me of the urban myth about the factory worker who, at her retirement party, is forced to admit that for the previous five years she has been just moving empty boxes from one side of the factory to the other. Five years in which no one had ever asked her what she was doing. Would anyone notice, I ask myself, if I tried this for a few days, weeks, or even years? Don’t get me wrong – I love my job as a technician working in a research lab (and moving empty boxes would send me insane) but there is limited acknowledgment for day-to-day trolley tasks and little job satisfaction in them.

Personally, the most fulfilling part of my job is helping researchers with their work. I see scientists and artists as jigsaw makers. They lovingly carve each piece of their jigsaw with the hope that the pieces will fit together to reveal an image, a story, which has not been seen before. As technicians, we get the pleasure of helping researchers carve a piece of that jigsaw. We provide the tools, give advice; we may even get to form a complete piece on our own from time to time. However, we rarely get to clip the pieces together and this means we miss out on the moments of discovery when the pieces slot into place and the joy of finding an answer that can then be published in a journal or presented to others. We miss out on that sense of closure. As Claude Bernard, one of the founders of experimental medicine, said, “Those who do not know the torment of the unknown cannot have the joy of discovery, which is certainly the liveliest that the mind of man can ever feel.” Technicians know (or at least empathise with) that torment, but the joy of discovery is rarely ours.

As technicians we are often dealing with many different projects, so we end up with a collection of pieces from various peoples’ jigsaws. This variety is part of the fun of being a technician, getting to be involved in so many projects; helping lots of different people with their work. This is where trolley days can be particularly frustrating. Without trolley days, laboratories, workshops, and offices would not function and work would be impossible. However, it is very difficult to hold onto the idea that you are helping progress someone’s research when, for the seventh time that day, you are pushing a trolley up a corridor, down in the lift, across a courtyard, into the store room, and back again.

These are days when acknowledgment can make a massive difference to morale. The thanks I recently received from a PhD student who had just submitted his thesis made my day. He came up to my office to say thank you for helping him through his PhD. To say thank you for keeping the anaerobic chamber running, for my calm reaction to his (minor) disasters, and for keeping him supplied with centrifuge tubes. These were small acts that had made his day-to-day work possible. His thanks gave real meaning to all of the trolley days.

Of course, trolley days are only possible when you have a trolley. So, to the person who recently “borrowed” my trolley, please give it back. Without it I might not be able to provide you with the tools you need to carve that missing piece of your jigsaw. Also, I miss my favourite trolley.

How people in science see each other.
How people in science see each other. From http://biomatushiq.sotak.info/

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