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Tweed or speed … a day in the life of a modern scientist

When even your family don’t know what you do, it’s time to start explaining. tony newell

THE STATE OF SCIENCE: When we think “scientist” what comes to mind? Aloof boffins with fading elbow patches or, even worse, nothing at all? Andrew Whitehouse puts pen to pad and fills in the gaps.

“What is it you do again, mate?”

So says my twin brother. The man with whom I shared a uterus for nine-and-a-bit months; the man who slept within five metres of me for more than half of my life; the man who saw fit to have me as Best Man at his wedding.

Yet, he’s clearly no Robinson Crusoe: the quizzical looks I get from family and friends when I tell them I’ve had a busy week lead me to think he’s far from alone on this one.

I shouldn’t be too harsh. The day-to-day life of a scientist doesn’t lend itself to a sound-bite description that can easily be reeled off with a beer in one hand and an hors d’oeuvre in the other.

In the least words possible, my research is concerned with understanding what causes children to develop Autism Spectrum Disorders, and how we can best support these individuals lead a fulfilling and happy life. That was 28 words. I’d like to see my bioinformatics colleagues beat that.

In an era where the worth of research is openly questioned, it’s more important than ever that we start demystifying what exactly goes on inside the “halls” of science. The image of well-to-do, tweed-jacketed grey-beards lounging in front of a fireplace pontificating about the state of the “real world” may be a romantic way to bash a scientist, but how far off the mark is it?

Last week, I tucked a pen and pad of paper under my arm to chronicle 24 hours in the life of a scientist. It was an eventful day, but at the same time, not particularly out of the norm. Nevertheless, I have a hunch that other scientists will see my day as the low-fat version a typical 24 hours in their shoes.

In any case, Brother, read this and commit it to memory. I’m going to test you on it.

4:00am: The phone rings. A midwife tells me one of the participants in our pregnancy study has gone into labour, and that I better high-tail it down to the hospital to collect the all-important umbilical cord blood. I bang into the door frame on my way out.

5:30am: Arrive back home. Realising a bustling labour ward has stolen any chance of more sleep, I move to trimming down the size of my email inbox.

6:15am: Take the dog for a walk and rue my forgetfulness in not bringing a doggy poop bag.

7:00am: Deliver the umbilical cord blood to the lab for processing and feel glad to no longer be carrying around a vial of blood – I was starting to get the occasional sideways glance.

7:15am: Arrive at work. Grab a coffee – always the first task. Continue responding to emails that flowed in overnight. One from a collaborator in the UK asking for a different type of analysis on some genetic data we recently acquired; another from someone at a journal requesting that I review a recently-submitted paper.

I accept the request, in spite of the (speedy) two-week turn around required. I keep writing up the results of a recently completed trial on the effects of prenatal ultrasonography on offspring cognitive development. I’m on to the Discussion section, where I’m battling valiantly to summarise the results and place the findings in the context of the broader research literature. Half-an-hour of plugging away and I think I’ve brought the Discussion to its knees.

8:00am: Research team starts trickling into work. They tell me we have a particularly interesting family coming in today, who have four (FOUR!) children with autism. I make a note in my diary to go down and meet the family at 9:00am. In the meantime, I keep refining the Discussion.

9:00am: The family arrives for their assessment session. I talk with the parents while the children are being assessed. We talk about the children’s language skills, toilet-training and schooling options.

9:30am: I head back to my office and start working on a talk that I’m giving to a group of speech pathologists next month, then wrestle with PowerPoint 2010. Why does the title of my talk keep flying in from the left?

10:00am: Coffee number two. I get a reminder email that there is a primary-school group touring later in the morning that would like to know about autism.

10:30am: Deliver a ten-minute talk about autism to the touring students, and take a short question and answer session. I get temporarily stumped by a ten-year-old asking: “How do I know if I have autism?” Good question, young man. I must find a way to answer that question without delving too far into the complex world of genetics and diagnostics.

10:50am: Head back to my office to find a phone message from the mother of a child who has participated in our research. The child has just been suspended from school, and she is at a loss as to what to do. We discuss several options and I refer her to a therapist affiliated with our research group.

11:00am: Back to PowerPoint. I turn myself in knots trying to find a way to explain the endocrinology basics to speech pathologists. I settle on a “lock and key” analogy – not very original, but it will do the job.

12:30pm: Lunch with colleagues. We discuss a breadth of topics, ranging from progress on paper writing (fair-to-middling), to the recent APEC summit in Hawaii (where were the funny shirts?) to the West Coast Eagle’s newest recruits (won’t help with the 2012 Premiership tilt).

1:00pm: I go through the monthly budget reports for our various grants. Everything seems to be on track. I email the group statistician to determine the feasibility of the analyses requested by our UK collaborator.

2:00pm: Meet with a PhD student to review the data from her latest study. The data seem to support our hypothesis, but we need to delve a little deeper. After running a few statistical analyses, we get down to the task of designing the next experiment for her PhD.

3:00pm: The research team tells me another participant in our pregnancy study has arrived for an assessment. I pop down to the clinic rooms to meet her. She’s 38 weeks pregnant, and feeling every kilogram of it. We tell her – with the straightest faces possible – that, in between bracing for contractions, it would be great if she could give us a call to let us know her baby is on its way.

3:30pm: Coffee number three. I read back over the Discussion of the paper I worked on in the morning, and decide that I’m not satisfied with it. I read a few more papers in the area, and incorporate the findings into my argument.

4:10pm: I receive a call from a research assistant at the lab, who says that the cord blood collected this morning is “top quality”. Very good news! Another research assistant arrives at my office and would like to have a chat about the the assessment session with the family this morning. Some of the work can be challenging, and time always needs to be found to “debrief” after particularly tough sessions.

4:30pm: Back to the Discussion. After spending 20 minutes in mortal combat with one infuriating sentence, I realise that perhaps today’s best work has passed me by. It’s time to turn to my email inbox. Various emails from researchers, administrators and friends (shhh … don’t tell!). After responding to a few emails, I find my fingers are working faster than my brain and decide to call it a day.

5:30pm: Walk to the car, unable to stop thinking about how to better phrase that one maddening sentence.

6:00pm: Arrive home. Time for life …

This is the twelfth part of The State of Science. To read the other instalments, follow the links below.

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