Hand to Mind Equilibrium in the Lab

Walk to media room and weigh media, walk to glassware area and grab beaker, pour media into beaker, autoclave. Sit down at desk, examine data, think, take notes, decide how to proceed. Take media out of autoclave and back to lab, wait for media to cool. Sit down at desk, think about next experiment, take notes, write protocol. Hands. Mind. Hands. Mind.

One of the distinguishing features of experimental science, and in my opinion one of the most enjoyable ones, is the combination of manual and intellectual labor.

Manual labor consists of tasks such as:

  • Benchwork (pipetting, pouring gels, streaking plates, etc.)
  • Walking or running between rooms and work areas
  • Swirling and mixing solutions
  • Counting cells under the microscope

Intellectual labor consists of tasks such as:

  • Designing experiments
  • Analyzing data
  • Reading papers
  • Discussing ideas with colleagues
  • Writing papers and grant applications

While manual labor requires a vast infrastructure of lab tools and devices, intellectual labor often requires no more than a pen, a sheet of paper and access to the literature. Both are equally important and must be mastered fully. The manual labor corresponds to the more “hands-on” side of the job and can be compared to the work of artists (painters, dancers, musicians) and craftsmen (carpenters, tailors, electricians). Scientists that master their craft will generally obtain data that can be interpreted easily and that looks presentable. Similarly, scientists that master the intellectual aspect of the work are less likely waste time doing the wrong experiments and will design each experiment to maximize the amount useful information that is derived from them. The best scientists are both nimble craftsmen and powerful thinkers who can derive the most insightful conclusions from data obtained through the most elegant experiments.

The best way of building strength in both areas is through practice accompanied by careful observation. Malcom Gladwell writes about this in his book “Outliers”, where his 10,000 hour guideline states that one must devote 10,000 hours to a craft before one can even begin to succeed. Think of yourself as the pianist who can’t spend a day without playing the piano, or the dancer whose muscles become stiff unless he or she practices every day. To reach the highest level of skill, the scientist must train both hands and mind for optimal performance – and 10,000 hours may be the least that it takes.