Laboratory Culture: Camaraderie

Martin Chalfie, I predict, will be one of the more entertaining Nobel Prize-winning speakers for the Princeton Regional Chamber’s Albert Einstein lecture series. He’s the one who slept through the 2008 Nobel phone call, only to open his computer to find out “Who was the schnook who won this year” and found out he was the schnook who would share the prize for chemistry

But as I read Martin Chalfie’s autobiography, I am swamped with nostalgia for my childhood. He wrote about a lab where everyone was “deeply concerned about science. People talked about experiments at coffee, lunch, and tea and in our coffee room at all hours. And although molecular biology was considered the most important part of biography, people’s interests were more general.”

That sounds so much like my father’s lab in the Bressler building at the University of Maryland medical school — and at the Marine Biology Lab in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. From my little girl’s point of view, that was what grownups did — work hard and talk about their work. This is how big and little discoveries were made. That is how I acquired a work ethic of don’t stop till you drop.

Chalfie tells of lab swim meets and guitar concerts and softball games and I remember how the grownups in my laboratory pantheon also knew how to play.

In a slide show,  Chalfie told  how his wife, also a scientist, allowed him to reference her unpublished work in a seminal paper. She wrote a formal letter striking the bargain that he would make coffee and take out the garbage for a month, plus cook one gourmet dinner. I have mixed feelings about that revelation, as I think of all the momma/poppa lab scientists I knew, my parents among them.  

Chalfie will offer a glimpse into the world of the scientist. The lecture is today, Wednesday, March 14, at 5:30 p.m. at the Woodrow Wilson School’s Dodds Auditorium, Robertson Hall. I predict it will be very crowded and it would be prudent to register here and also to get there early. Expect to have difficulty parking, 

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