Starting a new research project is like buying an old house

A few days ago, after a meeting with my boss, I had a conversation with one of my post-doc colleagues about how our respective research projects are going. Like mine, his project is still in its infancy and he made an analogy between a new research project and buying an old house, which I thought I would share with you.

In general, research in academic medical/biological laboratories is carried out by Research Technicians, Research Assistants, PhD students and Post-doctoral Researchers, and is overseen by a Principal Investigator (PI). At each level the researcher becomes more independent, increasingly responsible for pushing the direction of their project. They will be encouraged to take on additional responsibilities, such as teaching, and writing papers and grant applications. In the lab in which I carried out my PhD research, the PhD student typically explored a crazy new idea, seemingly plucked out of the air by the PI, and if feasible, a post-doc would take the idea further to an advanced stage. Post-doc projects also breed new post-doc projects, which is most often the case in the lab I now work in. PhD projects tend to be funded for 3 years; post-doc projects have a duration of 2-3 yrs. Usually, researchers are encouraged to move on to another lab at the end of their project, to allow them to gain new skills, and to allow fresh thinking to be brought into the lab.

Although I have never bought a house myself, when I was a child my parents bought a large 1930s semi to renovate after completing a smaller project in the same village. I have fond memories of pulling wallpaper off walls and trudging around hardware shops at the weekends. Underneath the wallpaper, throughout the house, the walls were covered in a peculiar, chalky orange paint, and I can still remember the feel of it as I scratched the wall with my nails. Every room had a fireplace with marble-effect brown or green tiles; my parents left these in some rooms (including my bedroom), but removed them from others. I still have a tile with a picture of a ship on it from one of the fireplaces, currently in use as a coaster on my desk. I clearly remember the removal of the large kitchen fireplace to make way for a door into the newly-built garage, as my dad hit his thumb with a hammer whilst removing it, and had to be taken to the hospital to have the pressure relieved.

94 (Exploration of a childhood home) (2004). Felt-tip pen, ink and pencil on paper, 60 x 84 cm.

For a long time, the old, run-down shed remained in the back garden, full of old gardening equipment and rusted metal cans with old-fashioned writing on them left by the previous occupants. I remember this as a treasure trove of objects, and you never knew quite what you would find as you dug deeper. The previous owners were elderly, and so it is likely we purchased the house soon after they were taken into care (or worse). All of the personal objects would have been removed before we moved in. The gardening equipment had probably not been used for many years; I remember the garden being densely overgrown. Like buying an old house, upon taking on a new research project the existing equipment is something you have to get to grips with. It has its own idiosyncrasies, and preferred ways of working. It may seem archaic, but other lab members assure you that it has always worked for them just fine. At what point do you throw away the old gardening equipment and start a-fresh, rather than trying to get to grips with the old equipment, each time wondering if that use will be its last?

As money for research grants becomes tighter, funding boards require more and more preliminary work to be done, making the project a “good punt”, unlikely to fail. This data is likely to have been obtained by the previous post-doc or PhD student, who have long since moved away. The best way to begin work is to repeat key experiments, and move forward from there. In my current project, when I started to repeat the work of my predecessor, I found key differences in the quality of the data I produced compared to theirs. I’ve been carrying out simple western blots of expression of a particular protein with an antibody left to me, using dilutions of the primary and secondary antibodies recommended by the previous researcher, and by others in the lab. My initial blots were so dark, with a high background, that they were impossible to quantify or be confident of, and I had to optimise the antibodies and methods for myself, eventually preferring to purchase a new antibody.

As I mentioned before, I have never been able to buy my own house, but have lived in my fair share of rental properties in old buildings. My current home is in a late Victorian building, which has been split up into six spacious flats. Although the building has been thoroughly modernised, it still retains its own eccentricities. Certain parts of particular walls are damp in the winter and grow mildew if furniture is pushed up against them preventing them from being properly ventilated. This problem, and the lack of ventilation in the bathroom, means we have a large dehumidifier running almost constantly. All of the light switches and taps have been fitted backwards; when we first moved in I spent a long time trying to run the hot water out of the bathroom tap before finally deducing that you had to turn the ‘cold’ tap on for hot water. I suppose, as with a new research project, if you can ‘survive’ these peculiarities without breaking, then you have found your home, and can begin to make new discoveries in your research.

The point at which you finally discover how the previous researcher must have been working, which methods and protocols worked for them, is the point at which you have to decide whether their methods are the right ones for you, going forward. Every scientist has their own methods for doing things, perhaps borne out of ease in the current laboratory environment, or retained out of fondness for a previous teacher. Since particular methods differ only in their protocol and not in the final outcome or results of the experiment, it does not matter which method is chosen. In a similar way, the part of a house that can make it a home are its decorations and furniture. Do you choose to retain the decoration and taste of the previous inhabitant, or rip it all out and start anew? Like experimental method, it matters not either way, coming down to personal preference. Although, like experimental protocols, a lot might depend on how much money you have available to spend. Can’t you learn to live with that patterned sofa, since it performs comparably with a brand new sofa?

I find it interesting what I remember about those two houses I lived in with my parents as a child. I explored my memories in the two drawings reproduced on this page. I made them as though I was miniature, climbing the stairs and walking through the bedrooms.

119 (Exploration of a childhood home, II) (2004). Permanent marker on gloss-painted canvas 30 x 30 cm.

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