Research Nails: How the Lab Stays with You

The other day, I looked down at my hands and realized that, despite being out of laboratory research for over a year now, I still had “lab nails.” What are lab nails, you may ask. Well, when I was working in a lab, I had to keep my nails short and neat and generally unpolished. When I worked in optics, I would tend to use my finger nails as screwdrivers for tiny bolts, so I tended to keep them short to avoid this habit. Plus, I couldn’t have flaking nail polish. In my fabrication-heavy job, I needed nails that wouldn’t tear through gloves, and I wouldn’t bother with nail polish because I worked with solvents (which, yes, should stay off my hands if I’m properly PPE-ed, but things happen).

It’s these little ways that a lab environment stays with you. Physically, it took a little while before I felt fully comfortable dressing for my job without assuming I’d need to change pump oil during the day. Or wearing makeup on a regular basis. Or, yes, actually getting my nails done occasionally. But on a deeper level, I was coming from an environment where most of your coworkers treat their job, their research as one of their primary identities. They are Scientists, first and foremost. No one in my office now seems to think of themselves as primarily identified by their job. They have hobbies and outside interests. There’s the guy who’s really into baseball, or the woman who trains horses, or the guy who grows vegetables.

But in research, you are a Scientist. There are those who consider any serious outside hobby as somehow lessening your dedication to The Science. When I ran a marathon, I actually kept it a secret from my labmates for fear that they would assume I was somehow less dedicated to the research, even though I didn’t spend any less time actually in the lab. But just knowing that I was doing something with my time that wasn’t thinking about the research seemed taboo.

Even now, I look at D, who has finished his thesis and works much more manageable hours, and he spends so much of his time outside of work actually doing work. He’s reading papers. Or he’s hashing out plans for the lab while we’re chatting on our weekend run. Ironically, because I no longer work in a lab, I’m a bit more amenable to discussing lab things on the side. But that’s because all of a sudden, I get to leave my work at work.

And this was one of the ways that I decided to pursue work outside of the lab. To investigate ways to connect with science, to use my science knowledge, without working in a lab. This is how I decided to become a scientist instead of A Scientist. It never sat well with me, the idea that if you work in a lab, your life is the lab. I know there are people who can balance this, but it is largely implicitly expected, at least at the early stages of scientist pupation, that you are utterly devoted to your research. Any other interest takes a back seat. It’s one of the reasons I never tried to get back into community theater while in grad school, despite the fact that I had pretty flexible hours and didn’t tend to have to get to work early. I knew that if something came up, I’d have to prioritize the lab.

So now that I’ve moved out of grad school, and then out of research, I find myself opening myself to more new hobbies and interests. I can throw myself into acting projects without worrying that I might end up having to stay several hours later because something broke in the lab. I know my schedule because work is work and my time is my time. I am a scientist, yes, but I am also an actor and a writer. A baker. A crafter.

And yet, I still have stubby little nails, devoid of polish. Not because I don’t want to, but just because making them pretty isn’t a habit I got into. Because some thing stay with you.

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