Break the seriousness of the lab, with humor!

Modern-day PIs are bringing humor to the table, and that’s for good reasons.

Photo by Jason Goodman on Unsplash

Physics is just like sex: sure, it may give you some practical results, but that’s not why we do it

Richard Feynman

We effortlessly remember this quote for two reasons. Firstly, one of the world’s best minds produced it. And secondly, of course, the quote has the word “sex” in it.

Starting from Albert Einstein to Andre Geim, most of the brilliant minds in science have one thing in common. An unparallel sense of humor. Geim received the Nobel Prize for creating the thinnest material in the world and also bagged the Ig Noble Prize for his witty experiments.

Lately, the same idea is gaining traction in academic grooming. As PIs start infusing humor into their lab culture, they mentor their student’s minds to think much more creatively.

If you take a tour of Derek Pociask’s lab at the University of Tulane School of Medicine, you’ll find a list of lab rules. Do you expect the list would start with “Do not…”?  Then, you couldn’t be more wrong. The first one reads, “Be a badass”. And the seventh, “Protocols are NOT suggestions”. Yes, that’s how the list goes.

Then, imagine yourself sitting in a group meeting. And the PI says they have a straightforward idea. Your anxiety is quelled for that moment. And then, they propose a wild idea that is as simple as rocket science. That is what the term straightforward implies.

Jesse Lee, a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania, started tweeting with #ShitGregorySays to document the radical ideas of his boss, Gregory Beatty. Once Beatty told Lee in a very casual way to make slices of cancerous mouse liver survive in a petri dish to test the impacts of drug concoctions. Then, Lee worked for YEARS to keep the lives alive in the petri dish for TWO weeks. Straightforward, right?

PIs can also pass their sense of humor to their mentees with out-of-the-lab activities. Melissa Bates, a physiologist at the University of Iowa, occasionally goes with her students on bike rides after work. Many of her memorable quotes came from her weekend group trips. When a mentee asked her about a weird physiology question, she jovially responded, “Why? I don’t know, I am not the Lord”.

These examples teach us two primary lessons.

First. When the lab is filled with jovial conversations and PIs are actively part of it, the students tend to learn things faster. Even neuroimaging research suggests that when the concepts are conveyed with humor, people tend to grasp them faster. Humor activates the reward system of the brain and long-term memory as the research unveiled.

Second. It partly abolishes the unspoken hierarchy of the lab. In this way, faculty members indicate that they are approachable and stay open to learning from their mentees, even undergrads. The lab members develop the psychology to cooperate with their colleagues and try out-of-the-box ideas.

In the end, great science is only the product of well-executed teamwork, right?

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