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The Universal Language of Lab

By Joelle Dorskind

On the floor where I work in the preclinical teaching building at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, there are postdoctoral fellows from China, Israel and Portugal; graduate students from Canada, Germany and Taiwan; and technicians, faculty and others from all over the world.

You can always find someone on the phone chatting in his or her native language; the diversity of cultures and backgrounds is immense and so special. We all share language, culture and food from our homes during lunch and coffee breaks. Though the hallways and conference rooms are filled with various cultures and languages, once we all enter the lab, we immerse into the same culture and speak the same language: the universal lab language.

Of course there are translations for the word “pipette” or “gel” in other languages, but what has always been so amazing to me is that no matter where fellows, students and faculty come from, we are all able to work together cohesively.

There is a rhythm to working in the lab.

The same way one can hear a beat, regardless of the language the song is in, and hum and dance to it, scientists can work in the lab, no matter the location. I’ve noticed this as I’ve moved from lab to lab, from college to internships, to my first job and finally to graduate school. Though it takes time to learn the precise choreography specific to each lab, holding a pipette in your hand feels the same no matter where you are.

Science transcends cultural and geographic barriers. By publishing our work in peer-reviewed journals, we share our discoveries with the world. The format of each journal guides scientists through published research and enables us to understand data collected from across the world. Because we have created a universal language, we can communicate to the broader scientific community, and through this, we have the opportunity to share our resources and knowledge at international conferences and beyond through global collaborations.

Though we can sit side by side at the bench with scientists from around the world and operate fluidly, the most rewarding parts are during incubation steps — waiting times during protocols — where we step back from the universality of science and discuss the subtle differences. We put down the pipettes and share stories of our countries and what it’s like to be a scientist where we’re from.

Though we are working toward the same goal, the same project and the same outcomes, where we come from does matter and does shape how we operate and “dance” in the lab. It’s the subtle differences and larger ones that make science so diverse and rich and contribute to the greatest discoveries.

Science itself is vastly diverse; at any one university, the fields of study can range from plant biology to clinical cancer research. Within each niche, there is a language, a vocabulary familiar to those engaged in that work. There are also sublanguages that define each subject area.

Though we are divided by field, by conferences and by the journals we publish in, at the end of the day, we find ourselves at the bench, moving to the rhythm of the lab and the beat of the experiments — speaking the universal language of science.

Joelle Dorskind is a Ph.D. student in the Cellular and Molecular Medicine Program, where she is exploring the molecular mechanisms underlying cortical circuit formation in Dr. Alex Kolodkin's laboratory. This post originally appeared in Biomedical Odyssey, Adventures from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.


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