Sounds of science: Using music to accompany lab work


IMG_1010full2 Kurt McKean


If my job description were written after seeing how I spent most of my time as a graduate student and postdoc, it would have read: "We are looking for a highly qualified scientist to put old flies in new bottles." This mind-numbingly boring task is all too familiar to any Drosophilist. But spending seemingly endless hours doing tasks that you could train an 8-year-old to do—yet somehow can't trust an undergraduate to get right—isn't unique to fly-pushers. Other lab job descriptions might look for highly qualified researchers to feed mice, make media, mix solutions, or develop a repetitive-motion disorder from operating a pipette. Maybe it's the first important lesson learned by young scientists: While science can be endlessly fascinating, actually doing science is often tedious and boring.

To get through the long hours of fly-tipping, we turned to music to help pass the time. I say “we” because fly-tipping is often an unorganized group activity, with different members of the lab taking care of their own stocks or taking a turn on maintaining lab stocks. I learned a lot about my labmates from their musical tastes—while trying to not judge too harshly.

My own lab playlist has evolved over the years, with changes saying much more about my age than providing any evidence of developing refined musical taste. Even now, hearing certain songs or bands takes me back to the dank fly lab (and its smell of yeast and molasses) of graduate school. I remember a security guard poking his head into the lab late one night. I was listening to OK Computer (perhaps a bit too loudly) and the guard asked me if I was listening to jazz. Who knows? Maybe I was. As a postdoc, I discovered artists like The National, Josh Ritter, Gogol Bordello, LCD Soundsystem, and The Strokes. I rediscovered classics such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and the Beastie Boys (yes, the Beastie boys are now classic). And I was introduced to international stars such as Fela Kuti (and his son Femi), Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, and Daft Punk. And yes, I even eventually listened to jazz.

As an assistant professor, my music was relegated to streaming on my office computer at times when I wasn't writing lectures, writing grants, writing papers, or meeting with students. In other words, my musical tastes were likely frozen in place at the end of my postdoc. The graduate students and undergraduates in my own lab continued the tradition, and I learned a lot about them from their taste in music.

I did set up some rules for lab music—loosely followed and enforced, but rules nonetheless:

Rules for music in the lab

  • Volume: In my own lab, the volume had to be low enough to allow for regular conversation. This was violated from time to time, and I was never tyrannical about it. If someone worked late the night before and has 300 transfers to do before lunch, maybe it's worth it to let them crank it up a bit. I was certainly guilty of breaking my one rule, too. While a graduate student in California, if I had the lab to myself, I tried to keep the volume just low enough that I could distinguish between an earthquake and the pounding bass. Perhaps the only hard-and-fast rule is never, under any circumstances, turn the volume up to 11.
  • Playlist: It should go without saying that songs with explicit lyrics should stay off of the playlist. After that, when sharing the room, it's worth asking what your labmates would like to listen to. While it may come as a surprise to hardcore punk or death metal aficionados, not everyone may find your music relaxing or conducive to carrying out tasks—other than pulling their hair out. Also, it doesn't have to always be music. Get informed or entertained by listening to All Things Considered or a comedy podcast.
  • Headphones: I was never a fan of the exclusive use of headphones, and I tried to discourage their use in my own lab. It's important that people in the lab chat and get to know one another. I remember an undergraduate who worked in our lab when I was a postdoc. He would show up to do his transfers, put on his headphones, and disappear when he was done. Maybe there is a reason I never remembered his name. Of course, there are times when headphones may be appropriate—particularly when a labmate needs to concentrate.
  • Where and when: Rules about where and when to play music are best made definitive and without exceptions. Music should not be played in areas where it could affect lab safety or in areas where people need to be able to focus and concentrate. I have been lucky in that fly-tipping was always done in a room separated from the wet lab and offices. In labs where this isn't the case, those dreaded headphones may really be necessary.

Finally, here’s a playlist for a late night in the lab when you’re just not sure you can get through your last tedious task of the day. Listen at your own risk, and feel free to judge my taste as harshly as you'd like!

  1. Suburban War – Arcade Fire
  2. Lazy Eye – Silversun Pickups
  3. Dance Yrself Clean – LCD Soundsystem
  4. Sabotage – Beastie Boys
  5. Bohemian Like You – The Dandy Warhols
  6. Hot Rod Lincoln – Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen
  7. Sister Golden Hair – America
  8. We are Young – Fun.
  9. Pick Up the Pieces – Average White Band
  10. Dead Man’s Party – Oingo Boingo
  11. What Went Down – The Foals
  12. Human – The Killers
  13. Paranoid Android – Radiohead
  14. Love Shack – The B-52s
  15. 5 Years Time – Noah and the Whale
  16. Wagon Wheel – Old Crow Medicine Show

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Kurt McKean

Kurt McKean

Kurt McKean has studied the evolution of immune function and pathogen host interactions since his days as a PhD student at the University of California Riverside. Subsequent stops included a postdoc at Cornell University, and faculty positions at the University at Albany and Hull University. He now lives and works in Montepellier, France, teaching science, editing manuscripts, and trying to keep up with his twin boys.