Monday, February 25, 2008 - 06:48
Bora had an enjoyable post yesterday on obsolete lab skills. I can empathize because I have a pretty good collection of obsolete lab skills myself. These days I'm rarely (okay, never) called upon to do rocket immunoelectrophoresis, take blood from a rat's tail, culture tumor cells in the anterior eye chamber of a frog, locate obscure parasites in solutions of liquid nitrogen, or inoculate Kalanchoe leaves with pathogenic bacteria. (Wow! It sounds like I worked for the three witches in MacBeth! Fire burn and cauldron bubble!) I don't entirely think that my lab skills are "obsolete." I prefer to describe them as "specialized." Some of the things that I learned doing lab work have even transferred to the outside world. I make stock solutions of chicken broth. I never leave food containers uncovered (dirt falls down!). And if I had to draw blood, or pick up a mouse without getting bit, I could still do it. But, the comments on Bora's post made me think deeper. There's always a big lag between the kinds of techniques that we use in practice and the kinds of techniques that we teach in the classroom. Maybe now is the time to start dealing with this gap and it's manifestation in biology. Sure, my perspective may be a bit skewed because of where I work, but I have seen the field of biology experience a big shift in how people work and how they spend their time. One of my coworkers describes the change this way. He says, that when we were graduate students, most of our time was spent at the bench constructing the right plasmid to test something or doing assays that could be interpreted from running the right gel or doing the perfect Southern, Northern, or Western blot. We lived for beautiful gels. Now, (at least for some of us), we spend very little time at the bench. We either get our data from an on-line database, or we outsource the wet lab experiments and send samples off to service labs. The service labs perform the high throughput DNA sequencing or mass spectrometry assays, leaving us to spend our time working with the data.
The problem is that the schools haven't adjusted. Science teachers rarely use computers as a tool for science beyond literature research and writing reports. Lately, some of my collaborations with the laboratory education world, have convinced me that the gap between those of us who work with data and those of us who do not is getting wider. Maybe it's time for schools to start looking at the techniques and tools we're using now, and spend a little less time on the techniques we used then. Or we can go the wiki for obsolete lab techniques and add more items to the list.