– written by Golgi –
Label everything clearly, one of the most basic rules in laboratories. This simple practice allows for easy identification and for a cohesive working environment. Labels can make lab life easier and can even save your life, but what happens when you extend them to people? Most workplaces assign labels or titles to their employees. This same practice is not so different from what we see in the culture of academia. In research labs, there is a very clear hierarchy highest ranked by the principal investigator followed by post-docs, graduate students and undergraduates. Where someone fits in this hierarchy is among the very first things you learn about someone in science. With that label comes certain assumptions and expectations of who they are and what they can do.
As someone who has not scaled more than the first level of this climb, I am familiar with how labels can limit your experience in science. When I first joined a lab as undergrad, I was so eager to learn and contribute to the lab. That fire in me went out after a summer of siphoning snail tank water with my mouth. I became really disappointed with research in general and was too naive to realize that I shouldn’t have given up after my first lab experience.
It took two years and one wonderfully encouraging college advisor before I considered working in a lab again. The second lab I volunteered in, now employs me in a job that has a very blurry and indecipherable label in the best sense imaginable. On a day-to-day basis I bounce from one role to another whether I am restocking lab supplies, mentoring undergrads with their lab work or discussing data with the lab’s PI and my post-doc mentor. One year, I even had the chance to play field biologist in the German forest!
Although for HR purposes, my label is “Research Associate I”, it’s the people that I work with that help me break out of that box and encourage me to grow into this capable scientist that they see in me – one I sometimes doubt because of labels and society. Bottom line, labels exist for the sake of organization purposes, but when it comes to people, don’t take them so seriously that you limit growth and development of individuals.