Technicians: the oracles of the laboratory?

First published on the GE website 2nd January 2018.

“What’s your record for consecutive questions asked?”

John Candy, Uncle Buck

As a technician, I often feel like I am being bombarded with questions: questions about the location of things, questions of safety, and questions of cost. Some questions test my knowledge of the laboratory and of science, others test my patience. Working in a university means that this time of year is particularly full of questions as we welcome a lot of new laboratory users. This can make me feel like an ancient Greek oracle, constantly being consulted for my opinion. An oracle who sits in an office, not a in a cave, and who wears a lab coat instead of flowing robes. Shame really.

“Dude, where’s my car?”

Dude, where’s my car?

The question I am most frequently asked is, “Andy, where is X?” To which the answer is usually, “Right in front of you.” As a technician, I generally get to choose where things get placed, even if it is generally not me paying for them. In some ways this is ideal: academic colleagues generate the income and give me the opportunity to make the best use of the available space. However, it does also mean that I’m responsible for answering that constant flow of ‘where’ questions.

Costello: Well, all I’m trying to find out is what’s the guy’s name on first base?
Abbott: Oh, no, no. What is on second base.
Costello: I’m not asking you who’s on second.
Abbott: Who’s on first!

Abbott and Costello

While ‘where’ questions can be oddly satisfying, as they help users get on with their work, other questions can be trickier. These come in a range of forms: “When will it be finished?”, “How much will it cost”, and “Can you fix it?” Apart from the last question, to which the answer is obviously “Yes, we can!”*, I do not always have the answers straight away. The great thing about my role is that I get the freedom to find the answers.

I really enjoy this process, especially when the answer is not immediately obvious, or if it relies on information that cannot easily be Googled. Questions like: “What type of filter paper should I use for this?”, “Which pH probe should I be using”, or “How do I clean this?”. Sometimes these can be answered through experience, “Well, we usually use X.” but this is not always good enough. At this point it is my relationship with suppliers, manufacturers, and other technicians that comes to my rescue. A quiet phone call to the right person and I can be the perfect oracle, mysteriously all knowing.

“What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?”

Bridgekeeper (Terry Gilliam), Monty Python and the Holy Grail

When finding an answer requires more than a simple phone call then some more formal professional development might be needed. As a member of the Institute of Science & Technology (IST) I have started down the road of professional registration and am current applying for RSci. This process has already identified a few areas where some extra training would be useful for me. In this way, I’m hoping to get the training in before the questions arrive. I’ve also found that the IST’s annual conference has helped me find lots of great contacts.

Unfortunately, even with all these resources, there are still questions I cannot answer. This might be because I lack the time, training, or contacts to search out the answers. In these circumstances, it is tempting to answer like a true oracle: impenetrably. One story from ancient Greece goes that when King Croesus of Lydia asked an oracle whether he should go to war on his neighbouring kingdom. The oracle replied that if he went to war, a great kingdom would fall. He thought she meant the other kingdom, unfortunately for him, it turned out to be his own. Of course, in ancient Greece any inconsistencies between prophecies and events were dismissed as failure to correctly interpret the responses, not an error of the oracle. If only this was true in my laboratory…

“What’s in the box?”

Mills (Brad Pitt), Se7en

There are also questions I shouldn’t answer. These are often questions that should really have been asked of a laboratory users academic supervisor, not a technician. Some of these questions seem to come my way because users are too embarrassed to ask their academic supervisors in case they look stupid. Other questions come to me because the user doesn’t quite appreciate the complexity of the what they are asking.

Two questions that fit into the last category are: “Which method should I use for my samples?” and “What PPE do I need?” These types of questions have a limited set of answers, for example, “Which (of the two methods) should I use?” The obvious answer to such questions can easily be wrong, as the best answer might actually require deep background knowledge of the project which the laboratory user may, or may not, have.

Apparently, these are known as ‘argument wh-questions’ and they are exactly the kind of questions true oracles were asked, and even they sometimes found it better to deflect or avoid such questions. The oracles of ancient Greece would avoid answering such questions by being ‘indisposed’, so leaving it to the priests to respond by tossing coloured bones. I avoid answering questions by sending the laboratory user back to their academic supervisor; who can then choose to throw them a bone… or not.

“Why so serious?”

The Joker (Heath Ledger), The Dark Knight

The other great thing about being a true oracle was that you never had to explain your wisdom – you never had to answer the ‘why’ question. Unlike other types of questions, ‘why’ questions can be uniquely tricky. Why questions have an almost infinite set of possible answers, not only that but, as any parent of a young child will know, ‘why’ questions can be stacked: Why? Why? Why? Once you start answering ‘why’ questions, especially in research, you can end up down a very deep rabbit hole of knowledge and obscurity: a dangerous place to be.

‘Why’ questions can also express different levels of meaning. At the lowest level, ‘why’ questions look for the purpose behind an action, for example, “Why am I pipetting this solution?”. This type of ‘why’ question doesn’t feature so much in my life as a technician as the purpose of most actions is clear – to prepare the sample for analysis, and so on. The next level up and ‘why’ questions are looking for a reason: “Why am I using this method?” or “Why is there more iron in sample A than sample B?” I often find that these questions require more background knowledge about the project. Sometimes I have this information; other times I try to avoid answering this type of ‘why’ question, usually by becoming mysteriously indisposed.

The highest level of ‘why’ question is a motivation question, for example, “Why am I here!?” It is a question I rarely feel qualified to answer, scientifically or psychologically. Luckily for me, it is generally academic supervisors have command of the motivation ‘why’ question, having usually originated the ‘why’ question in the first place. I suggest to the questioner that they are the best person to talk to.

“You expect me to talk?”
“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.”

James Bond and Auric Goldfinger, Goldfinger

Of course, in research there is rarely a ‘true’ answer to any question but hopefully we can find the ‘best’ answer through teamwork: technicians, laboratory users, academics, manufacturers, and suppliers working together. It certainly seems a better approach than the Delphic oracle took. Archaeological evidence suggests that her visions came from the influence of the gas ethylene. I’m not sure health and safety would allow this anymore.

Teamwork may be important in general terms but, within my laboratory, I am definitely the oracle—or at least the first port of call for the anxious—no ethylene required. That said, if you come knocking on my door with questions at lunchtime, the only answer you are likely to receive is:

“You talkin’ to me?”

Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), Taxi Driver

By Andy Connelly

* Disclaimer (to any of my lab users), this statement does not guarantee that I can actually “fix it”. At least not straight away. Sorry.

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