I expect that my participation in a science-oriented community will affect me far more than the results of any of my experiments, this summer. The environment in the Callahan lab is more supportive, intellectual, humorous, and easygoing than I could have imagined. We tell stories about our weekends, discuss recent scientific findings, bemoan the health of our plants, and sing Beyoncé. We go on trips for ice cream or to see a blooming corpse flower at the New York Botanical Gardens. Every morning, I wake up looking forward to a day at the lab. The, sometimes, tedious nature of lab work (see photo of harvesting) is alleviated by the company. We spent about an hour discussing the distinction between ghosts and spirits (the two are unquestionably different, but the exact differentiation was subject to some debate). What makes the lab community so special and different from my other groups of friends and collaborators is our shared love and participation in science.
In lab, science isn’t a subject that is hated for its difficulty or forced into unenthusiastic class discussions. Instead, everyone shares a genuine love of science that passively pervades lab culture. In addition to our regular conversations about why our plants behave in the ways they do, we embrace the entire landscape of plant humor, read science books on weekends, and gather around the computer to read about President Obama’s paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association. When we began to run statistical analyses of our data and create graphs, the lab work became a crash course in using R (a statistics and graphics software). R is based on manipulating and writing programming code, something with which I had absolutely no experience. There is nowhere I would rather learn than in the Callahan lab. After a brief introduction, we learned mostly through trial and error. It was mostly silent in the lab, as people typed furiously in an attempt to avoid the red error messages. When we were finally able to work the software - anything from changing the colors of a graph to creating new lists of data based on statistical tests - the support in the room was overwhelming. Despite the fact that several of the new lab members had little experience in computer science, no one was too intimidated to embrace the challenge. Being in the presence of people, whose enjoyment of science is constantly and unintentionally on display, is really encouraging for an aspiring scientist.
Finally, as a Barnard student, I would like to praise the feminist: “Women in STEM” attitudes of the lab. When I started looking for labs to join this summer, I knew that I wanted a female scientific mentor. I know that being a woman working in science is still very different from being a man working in science. I wanted to be around women, who were thinking about the issues, and have a mentor, who had experienced them. I wasn’t disappointed. Feminism makes its appearance in the mostly-female lab in unplanned and frequently subtle, yet powerful, ways. Hope Jahren’s recent book Lab Girl about her work as a botanist, is a lab theme. “That’s so Lab Girl” is proclaimed in reference to everything from grant applications to an especially profound observation about plant life. Themes of women in science are brought up regularly in casual conversations like Andy Weir’s portrayal of women in The Martian and the first woman to circumnavigate the world (A botanist dressed as a man!). As with many of my experiences at Barnard, I feel inspired by my participation in this community of empowered female students and scientists.