Lab coat experiment

Problem 1

For years as a grad student I shared a relatively small office with two or three other students. It was a quiet environment –at times too quiet and solitary, I guess, but it was easy to focus on the task at hand. It was also easy to lose track about what everyone else in the Software Engineering group was doing.

About two and a half years ago, the whole group moved into a nice shared lab. I now sit in a spacious open-plan area with up to sixteen other grad students, there are meeting rooms and a kitchenette nearby, and the profs are only a few steps away. Now it’s easy to catch up with everyone else and to have stronger friendships and collaborations. But there’s a problem: it’s easy to get interrupted or distracted by the conversations going around. I’d like to keep that level of socialization, but I’d also like it to go away when I need to concentrate on my research.

Problem 2

As a Computer Science researcher I’m very much aware that what we do doesn’t count as science for other folks. It’s not about generation of knowledge: scientists are people with microscopes and lab coats, and so sitting in front of a computer or a bunch of papers all day just doesn’t cut it.

The Solution

Jon Pipitone and I decided to try out an experiment to solve these problems, or at least to solve the first one and laugh about our powerlessness regarding the second: lab coats! As Greg Wilson mentioned recently, we’re now wearing white lab coats whenever we’re “doing science” and we don’t wish to be interrupted during those periods.

Jon bought our coats at the Med Store of U of T, for $15 each. They’re quite nice and feature the University crest.

Everybody made fun of it, at least at the beginning, but people seem to be getting used to them and, once they learn that the lab coat signals that we shouldn’t be interrupted, they respect the wish. I’ve been using mine daily and find that not only I don’t get interrupted nearly as often, but when I wear it I become conscious that I shouldn’t distract myself either, and I’ve been very productive for the past two weeks. It’s spreading, too, Jonathan Lung now has a white coat at hand, and several people have asked where to get one or whether they can use ours.

So far the lab coats are not really boosting our scientific respectability, though. Maybe we should up the ante, like Jonathan did, and get some lab goggles too.

About Jorge Aranda

I'm currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the SEGAL and CHISEL labs in the Department of Computer Science of the University of Victoria.
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8 Responses to Lab coat experiment

  1. Galax says:

    You could try using a microscope to find bugs in the software.

  2. Johan says:

    Perhaps the whole SE lab should don white coats as sign of solidarity too 🙂

  3. Leo says:

    I only wish that you didn’t use a mouse for your scientific research. I know what you are gonna say – It would take much longer if we didn’t have mice to work with in our lab – Well, Sr., that is no excuse!

    The lab coat thing does sound funny, but you gotta do what you gotta do. It seems to be working. As long as you don’t walk around with an stethoscope once you are a doctor, you’ll be fine.

  4. I think this is an ethnography rather than an experiment 😉

  5. pam* says:

    Hmm.. what am I gonna wear when I feel like doing my homework.. a big TV on my head?

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