Internship at the Smithsonian: Blog 1

Blog 1: The Taxonomist’s Office To an outsider, the most shocking thing about a scientist’s office is its poverty. In nearly every other field that […]

Blog 1: The Taxonomist’s Office

To an outsider, the most shocking thing about a scientist’s office is its poverty. In nearly every other field that is highly respected in modern bourgeois society, whether it is law, finance, medicine, or even accounting, the upper echelons of the profession promise a comfortable office, with modern designed furniture, perhaps some wood panelling, a painting done by an artist of middling renown, and a secretary to take care of all that pesky paper work that the big enchiladas can no longer do themselves. By contrast, the office of a scientist at the pinnacle of their profession more resembles that of a deputy assistant president of human resources in a middling manufacturing company based out of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Invariably the chairs are old and broken, the walls are unpainted, and there are visible tubes carrying goodness knows what on the ceiling. The floor is of some cheap plastic linoleum, and the desk is covered with petty paperwork that needs to get done, in most cases not pertaining to some new discovery, but to the most recent round of grovelling that every scientist is subjected to in order to actually perform the research they were hired to do (otherwise known as writing grant proposals).

Take the office of Dr. H, a respected molecular systemacist, a man who has risen to be a curator of the Smithsonian, in one of the most prestigious natural history museums on earth, with the largest collections and most resources. This is no greenhorn, but a titan in his field, whose word could break or create a young systemacist’s career, whose name is whispered in awe at conferences from Moscow to Missoula, and who has pioneered new techniques that are now universal for over thirty years. His office is on the third floor of his museum, down a hallway where bulbs that flicker on and off due to budget cuts light your way past cabinets filled with specimens until you reach a door that says “Dr. H, Curator”. Inside is a cramped work environment, consisting of a desk with a new computer, buzzing with a next generation sequencing software, a sink where half a dozen vials, most full of soapy water and requiring a good drying, and a fume hood which seems to be filled to the brim with bits and bobs. To the side of this miniature laboratory there is a bookshelf, full of titles like Shells of the Western Atlantic and International Code of Zoological Nomenclature Adopted by the XX General Assembly of the International Union of Biological Sciences.

This collection of dusty and dirty equipment is all functional, and as far removed from the offices of people at the peak of their career in other fields as is the office in the mail-room and the C-suite. There is no wood panelling, no painting, indeed no decorative feature unless you count a small photo of a younger version of Dr. H, back when his hair was black and when his now adult daughter was a mere infant. Someone who knows nothing of biology might suppose that the copious shells on the desk of Dr. H may be decoration, but they are actually specimens, each of which is numbered and measured specifically, and pertaining to a different project. There are a number of Pleurotomariidae, used for a phylogenetic study of the family, a small green shell which is a new species from somewhere in the Indian Ocean of the coast of Kenya, and a number of cone shells that a wealthy donor has asked to be identified. In addition to this, there are piles of paper to be read, whether they are parts of dissertations on whose committee Dr. H sits, or articles that he needs to read for specialist journals, or his own articles which have been returned with corrections. Thus is the lot of a scientist at the very pinnacle of his career, the equivalent of a CEO of a major city bank or of a football player for Manchester United or Chelsea. In a small office, cramped and dirty, with piles of work, unappreciated by all but a small circle of their peers, and paid about as much as an associate at financial firm after five years of work.

About Daniel Villar