Friday 19 September 2014

The White Coat

The White Lab Coat is iconic for representing The Scientist. The young wan on the left brewing up sapphire gin over a bunsen burner is not a scientist, however, because she hasn't buttoned her white coat up.  This is the first week of the teaching term in The Institute, and I've had a couple of introductory lab classes. This is where I get a chance to harangue the students about how to write their their lab-books, where to put them for assessment, where to dispose of the various sorts of rubbish - sharps (broken glass etc.); bio-hazard; and the rest - and how they should read the protocol before they come to class (fat hope of that with real students).  My yesterday cell biology class was with a group from first year Sport Science (not to be confused with Sports Rehab or Health Science or indeed plain Science).

I explained why it was necessary to wear a lab coat and held up a real ratty specimen (my own lab coat from the dim and distant days when I was their age). I put two fingers through one of a tuthree large holes that have worn through the fabric in its long and checkered career, and held it up.  I said that nobody, after today, would be allowed into the lab unless they had a white coat but that I had this thing and two others for spare if someone forgot their coat.  The hole and the picture above left indicates that the white lab coat is largely symbolic.  If that gin explodes, 1 mm of white cotton is not going to save herself from getting a burn. But, I went on, the symbolism is important because it sets  you into a state of correct practice.  I then put on my coat as I rose up on tippi-toes and said "When  you put on your white coat regularly, you get taller, so that eventually you can leap tall buildings; in my science labs you will be thinking more critically, your powers of observation will be called into finer focus and you will apply attention to detail, you will record what you see carefully and you will act carefully and safely . . . and you will be wearing a white lab coat. Eventually, the mere act of putting on a lab coat will put you into a state of mind like that of a scientist, and then you are one" I've given dozens of variations on this theme over the years, but as I faced that class of Sporty people, I realised that they would understand because that's what they did every time they went out for footie practice: they put on special boots, shorts even in winter, probably a shirt of a peculiar colour and they are transformed into wannabe Eusebios, Peles or Messis who because of applied practice will get to be better sportistas.  I didn't need to compare them to Pavlov's dogs, which is good for their self-esteem - every good thing gets a boost in my classes.

When you've used a spectrophotometer or a centrifuge a dozen or so times, you don't need to read the manual: it has become second nature.  This is not to say that you treat these instruments casually or carelessly, rather you get to be a Good Pair of Hands.  Shrugging on the white coat is the first symbolic step on a long path.

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