Deep Reads: Christine Weber reflects on lab life and becoming a scientist

The first in our series following on from the PLOS Genetics Deep Reads article “Recommendations from Jane Gitschier’s Bookshelf” comes from Christine Weber, a PhD student in Fiona Watt’s lab at King’s College London, UK. Besides her research project in cancer immunology she enjoys writing about various kinds of science topics and is a big fan of science outreach in general. 

Natural Obsessions, by Natalie Angier, is the book which perhaps inspired me most when it comes to science. The title might be slightly misleading, as the story is in fact about life in a science laboratory: portrayed in one of the most authentic and insightful ways I’ve come across. Indeed, the title already points towards one aspect of science which accounts for most of its excitement, infectiousness, and ability to persistently chain researchers to the bench: science can be an obsession. In this case, the obsession we’re talking about is The Search for the Oncogene.

The book tells the story of Robert (Bob) Weinberg‘s lab during the 1970s and 80s; incredibly productive decades from which half a dozen major findings resulted. For people fascinated by cancer or genetics, Weinberg doesn’t need any introduction. His research into oncogenes—genes with the potential to cause cancer—has made him famous. This book gives a detailed account of events right from the beginning, when his lab started their substantial contribution to the field, and was still far-off the spotlight.

A labeled DNA segment (a known oncogene) in a mouse oocyte. By unknown photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We get to know all the scientists involved, and we hear about the challenges they faced during the race to publication. The author recounts stories of hard work, clever thinking, and lots of serendipity. But there’s also the dark side of science: competition, sometimes even within the lab; frustration over time-consuming experiments or negative results; and not least scientists who lose their faith in research and decide to leave.

I’ve read Natural Obsessions twice: once when I was an undergrad and just contemplating the idea of a scientific career; the second time was about a year ago, in the third year of my PhD project, when a colleague recommended the book and reminded me of it. At the beginning of my studies, it was easy to fall for the enthusiasm portrayed in the book. The author skilfully unravels complex methods in molecular biology in a way that a lay person can easily follow while still getting a grasp of the excitement and drive behind the experiments. Even just the passionate report of her first encounter with purified DNA in a dish got me hooked.

I’ve had similar outbreaks of excitement when working at the bench during one of my practical classes and the idea of turning this into a profession appealed to me. The scientists portrayed in the book seemed to be the kind of passionate, driven people I wanted to surround myself with. The work they did sounded almost unreal – I definitely put them on a pedestal. I was certain I could never learn to work this kind of magic at the bench.

Image credit: Bock et al. (2006)

When I read the book again last year I noticed that my perspective had somewhat changed. After years of experimental work I was suddenly surprisingly familiar with key aspects of the book: the frustration and hard work, the power of surprise, and also the overwhelming excitement of positive results. But one thing I hadn’t noticed the first time now suddenly caught my eye: politics.

Early in your scientific career it is important to learn how to successfully deal—and negotiate—with different characters. The book is quite frank about that, both from the group leader’s perspective but also from that of his employees. While I was now familiar with the methodology and routine in a lab, I could still learn something from the ways in which the scientists communicated with each other in Weinberg’s lab (or sometimes in fact failed to do so).

In the meantime I also had the chance to meet Bob Weinberg personally at my research institute. He wasn’t at all what I had imagined him to be after reading the book; he looked and talked like all the other professors—ways I was very familiar with by then. It was rather his profound knowledge and experience, and the ability to connect various different fields with each other that impressed me now.

Incubator. Photo courtesy of Christine Weber.

Incubator. Photo courtesy of Christine Weber.

I had time to study the publications of his lab members, too. Their work was certainly elegantly done (considering the limitations of the available technology at the time), but it basically followed the same routine I had encountered in my own lab. The way Weinberg led his team during the 80s equally didn’t strike me as extraordinary anymore. It was a very productive lab that got a lot of attention and was under quite some pressure, but certainly no bunch of super-humans defining history. Rather, smart people who were good at their jobs, a boss with an excellent nose for projects that were worth investing time in, and an adequate portion of luck.

That’s when it hit me that at some point during the past few years—subtly—I must have become a scientist. Natural Obsessions is a wonderfully precise tale about everyday life in the lab; it’s a tale about a scientist’s job. It was nice to remind myself of the excitement I had felt when reading the book for the first time—one of the reasons why I got into science. A lot of this enthusiasm is still there and resonates with the book, because in addition to Weinberg’s thrilling story about cancer genes I now also have my own research experiences (not that grand, of course) that are brought to mind while reading. In my opinion Natural Obsessions is a must read for everyone who is thinking about a career in science and also provides plenty of thought-provoking material for established researchers.

The author has declared that no competing interests exist.

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4 Responses to Deep Reads: Christine Weber reflects on lab life and becoming a scientist

  1. Ricki Lewis says:
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    Thanks Christine. It is wonderful to see a book about doing research remembered and honored years after it was published! Great review, great book.

    • Christine Weber says:
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      Many thanks! Yes, and it’s surprising how relevant the stories still are. It’s good to have books like this out there – also as a reality check to see that the way scientists work in competitive environments hasn’t changed that much after all (despite all the fancy technology).

  2. Jeff says:
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    I appreciate your posting on this topic as it brings back memories of working as an undergraduate research assistant in a lab. When I started in the lab, I remember feeling so excited that I was going to make a real difference. However, that excitement quickly waned as I learned how complex and frustrating academic research can be. Additionally, there were a lot of politics and competing egos in my lab that lessened my enjoyment of the research process. But, there was no better feeling than producing results and realizing your were one step closer to reaching a conclusion. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Pingback: What is it like to be a scientist working on a major breakthrough? | Curious About Science?

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