Guest post by Heather Cassell

Sometimes life in the lab can be a quiet and lonely affair. Isolation can creep in if your experiment requires long and unsociable hours, or you’re using a specialised bit of equipment that lives on its own, or simply when your lab mates are not around. The fact that labs often buzz with the hustle and bustle of science in action makes these contrasting moments all the more stark.

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Not that isolation is always a bad thing – if you are working hard and on a project that takes a lot of concentration then it can be a relief to be on your own. Being antisocial can allow you to get on with what you are doing without being disturbed. But if you have gaps in what you are doing – between multiple short incubation times or centrifuge runs, for example – then being on your own can be a drag and the few minutes you need to wait can feel like an age.

So I keep myself busy: I get useful small lab tasks done (with one eye on the clock), begin planning my next experiment, make sure my notebook is up to date. Sometimes it’s possible to simply sit and enjoy the peace and solitude. If you are lucky enough to work in a lab where you can listen to music on either a communal radio or a personal stereo, then this can really help to pass the time, and as you are on your own you can put on any music that you like, as long as it’s not too loud!

But music, communal or otherwise, is not always permitted for perfectly understandable health and safety reasons. I’ve worked in a few labs where we were not allowed radios or personal stereos and for me this is a big problem as I’m really prone to earworms. If you’ve not heard of these, I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept – these are those really annoying tunes, or even just snippets of music, that get stuck in your head. They often appear without rhyme or reason (well, with rhyme, but for no reason), and can loop for days until they eventually vanish of their own accord, often to be replaced by another maddeningly catchy musical motif.

If when I’m waiting for an incubation to end or for a centrifuge to finish running then you can bet that something annoying will pop in my head. Without the presence of other people to keep me in check, it is far too easy to end up singing along (badly) with the music in my mind, and this has led to a few embarrassing moments. Imagine your colleagues catching you singing Christmas carols in June, belting out cheesy 80’s songs, or – worst of all – merrily humming the theme tune to a kids’ TV program (I had Mike the Knight stuck in my head for weeks!).

So if you hear an unexpected musical performance echoing around an otherwise empty lab, perhaps it’s a colleague enjoying a period of solitude. But be warned – earworms are notoriously contagious, so the next time you’re alone, you may find yourself humming along.

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