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Put the Sci in your Fi — Getting Personal: The Realities of Life in STEM

Hello everyone, welcome to another entry of “Put the Sci in your Fi”!

For this month’s post, instead of talking about superpowered animals or lab equipment, I thought I’d talk about the people who do the work with that equipment—the scientists. Recently, I came across this question on Quora: “What are the harsh realities about getting a PhD?”

water help
This might be a little on the nose. It’s also an actual picture from my actual lab, so…

And the more I thought about it, the more I felt it might make a good “Put the Sci in your Fi” post. Not because it offers information on lesser known scientific research or gives an inside view to how a lab is typically set up, but because perhaps it can help an author create a more authentic fictional character dealing with the every day grind in the STEM field (that’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

With the way the question was phrased on Quora, I think perhaps my answers would come across as a bit negative, so for the purposes of this post, I’ve modified the original question to simply “What are the realities of life in STEM?” in hopes to give a more balanced answer that is relevant to sci-fi.

***Keep in mind, this post addresses things that I’ve experienced, with only a few viewpoints from close friends in the STEM field. I obviously don’t speak for the entire scientific community, nor is my experience in the STEM field 100% like any other person’s. If your experience was significantly different from what I’ve written here, please share! I’d love to include more viewpoints and broaden the scope of future articles!***

  1. Money problems.

    We are not all Tony Stark. Unless your character is a hotshot professor or something, they’ll likely be paid very little for their work. Grad students’ stipends are usually paid off a grant. If they’re lucky enough to secure their own funding, they may get a little more, but it still won’t be much. They’ll tend to make around 22k-30k a year, depending on the university. So, if I see a scientist character who’s anything less than a hotshot researcher dining out at Michelin-starred restaurants every other week and playing dress-up without a sugar-daddy/momma or rich parents, I’m gonna roll my eyes and say “Yeah, right, sure.” Even a post-doctoral fellow (post-doc, for short), someone who has their PhD already, will likely only make around 47k a year if they’re in the US. So don’t go putting them in BMWs and Mercedes. A “scientist car”, as one of my former labmate has dubbed them, is a Subaru, Honda, Toyota, Kia or Hyundai. I know, I know, this is stereotyping, but you know what? Check out the parking lot of a lab. Tell me how many Audis, BMWs and Mercedes you see there. There’s a reason why we joke that MDs are “money doctors” and PhDs are “poor, hungry doctors!”
  2. Not enough time.

    Your character will spend a lot of time in the lab. Approximately 10–12 hours every day at the very, very least. If you want to be hyper-realistic, throw them in the lab on the weekend and odd hours. 2 AM? Yes. 10:30 PM? Yes. I’d expect them to skip out on social gatherings with friends or wind up being the only one in the lab on Thanksgiving to wrap up experiments or check on experimental time points. Science doesn’t care about their social life or holidays. This could potentially work in your favor, help move your story along while giving a completely plausible reason for your character to be in a lab by themselves at 1 AM.

  3. Smart, but not know-it-alls.

    I mean I kinda know what I’m doing, but also not really?

    It seems like many times, scientists in fiction are the sorta “guru” know-it-all characters who are able to provide solutions just in time for any given problem. And their solutions always seem to work. Y’know, when they aren’t busy playing the evil mastermind trope. But in real life, scientists don’t know everything. Our first few hypotheses are wrong and more often than not, the solutions we come up with don’t work on the first few tries. I know it might seem like a “duh” moment while reading this blog, but sometimes even my own friends and family think I’m a walking encyclopedia. I don’t know about robotics or automation systems. I might know the theory about how antibodies are mass produced, but I’ve never made one myself. In reality, most scientists know a great deal about a couple of things and have only a shallow depth of knowledge about subjects that aren’t related to their research. Even the most senior people in my lab were no exception.

  4. Working together.

    The dream team

    Science is not a solitary sport. Rarely is there a single scientist huddled over a workbench in a dimly lit basement sweating over a project. So, to build upon point #3 – if scientists specialize in a few key areas, then you’ll need to have more than 1-2 characters in your fictional lab if you want to go about solving more than 1-2 problems. And, more importantly, you need different types of scientists working together to achieve a goal. You want your characters to build a vaccine to a new virus? You might need a geneticist, an immunologist, and virologist. And, if you’re feeling scientifically adventurous, maybe even an X-ray crystallographer, biochemist and structural biologist if you want a small-molecule drug instead of a vaccine. You need techs and support staff who can handle the routine work, too.

  5. Standards, or lack thereof.

    There is no “standard” when it comes to labs, except maybe in Hollywood. Some of them may look similar. But visuals aside, each lab is more or less unique. Labs can vary wildly in size, culture and areas of study. My lab was unusual—it was huge, one of those “empire labs,” and sometimes we had around 30 people. We ran tons of different studies, whereas many other labs will choose a “theme” and stick to it. It all depends on the lab’s resources. For example, I worked on peripheral nerve regeneration using one type of stem cells, but there were others in my lab who were investigating the antimicrobial properties of a certain other type of stem cell. Another worked on lizard tail regeneration. Someone else was working with platelet rich plasma to improve tendon repair. You get the idea.

    On the flip side, you might have labs like the one I was in for my undergraduate research. It was extremely small. We were undergrads, so we worked for class credits. We were extremely poorly funded, always scavenging reagents from a neighboring lab’s head honcho (or principal investigator [PI], as we call them) who we knew was going to retire. We all worked on different parts of the same project because we simply didn’t have the luxury/resources/people to expand to other projects. And my PI was always there, always accessible, with her office door open. Often, she’d work right alongside us at the bench, either advising us or laughing with us at something stupid. And right there, you have a dichotomy of two different types of labs: one where the PI is hands off and lets you do your own thing, while the other PI is extremely hands on, and is more “one of us.” Both have their pros and cons, so it’ll be up to you to decide how you want your characters to structure their lab.

That’s all for now! If anyone has any questions or would like me to elaborate on any of these points, please let me know in the comments, I’d be happy to share more of my experiences.

Until next time! ❤



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