Ever shared someone else’s toothbrush? I didn’t think so. I certainly haven’t, and yet there are some things that we’re perfectly willing to share, like a pen or perhaps a jacket. These unwritten rules are all around us, and they follow us into the lab as well.
Have a fume hood all your own? I bet that you’ve never done much chemistry in other people’s hoods—it would probably feel weird. You’d probably react poorly to one of your lab mates reaching into your hood and pulling out your stir plate. It probably doesn’t belong to you, but it is yours—you’re the one who uses it most often, and you’ve had it the entire time that you’ve been working in that hood. That possessiveness you feel, it’s one of those funny unwritten rules of the lab.
This possessiveness doesn’t stop at fume hoods, or simple equipment like stir plates. Put enough blood, sweat, and tears into a GC or an HPLC, and you’ll find yourself saying, “Don’t mess up my instrument!” to your untidy colleague who is borrowing it.
Chemists can be even more possessive of chemicals, especially when they have been ordered for a specific purpose or they have a limited shelf life. Break into your lab mate’s new bottle of dibutylboron triflate solution before they had a chance to use it for their Evans aldol reaction? You may receive coal in your stocking at the group Christmas party.
In some labs, the unwritten rule seems to be “No sharing whatsoever!” Everyone is very possessive of their equipment and glassware, and the number of shared materials is very low. Often, there is surreptitious pilfering, and as a consequence, people begin stowing stashes in odd spots. People defend their materials by labeling with their initials obsessively or perhaps by posting a picture of Chuck Norris staring down the would-be thief.
One way organizations can encourage sharing and discourage hoarding is to be generous. Want to make those stashes disappear? Have a stockroom full of fresh supplies waiting to be used by the enterprising chemist.
The environment within a laboratory can also be an unspoken treaty. It’s unwise to move the thermostat up or down significantly without talking to your fellow lab workers. Many laboratories compromise on the noise level by keeping laboratory settings relatively quiet. Like blasting really loud music while you’re running columns? It might be time for you to start working late at night or early in the morning when your lab mates aren’t around. Or it might be time to get a set of headphones. (Just be sure it doesn’t interfere with your ability to hear safety alarms.)
Just as many unwritten and unspoken rules exist about who receives credit for an improvement or a discovery in a laboratory. Think up an idea in a group setting? I think it’s wise to credit everyone who contributed to the idea, even if only one or two people actually performed the key experiment. But that’s just my opinion; your laboratory’s traditions around authorship are likely set by your principal investigator if you’re in academia, or by the rules of inventorship if you’re in industry. Because these contributions are so valued in the scientific community, I don’t think it is a coincidence that this is one of the places where the unwritten traditions of authorship can become a serious source of conflict.
I admit that I have broken unwritten rules. When I was a senior graduate student, I had a moment of weakness when I seized a group resource and carried it furtively back to my hood. I’m not proud of it, and I am glad that someone confronted me.
Many of life’s unwritten rules are about sharing, like giving other cars room on a crowded exit ramp. So it is with many of the laboratory’s unspoken rules: They are about creating an environment where people from different backgrounds can minimize conflict and work together to solve scientific problems. Just ask before you use my favorite stir bar, OK?
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.