The hands that tinker with nuts and bolts behind research (a fantastic Nature News feature)

I was alerted this morning – via Malcolm Campbell – to an excellent news feature on Nature News – titled: “Not Your Average Technician” – on four individuals who are engaged in behind-the-scenes jobs, which nevertheless support the scientific and technological research work of many in more visible fields.

NOTE: An indefatigable curator of the most interesting science news, Dr. Malcolm Campbell – I am honored to be his Scilogs colleague – continues to stimulate our minds with his daily posts on Twitter (where he reigns as @m_m_campbell) with his succinct, ultra-short but eyeball-catching commentary – sometimes with the hashtag:
#SixIncredibleThingsBeforeBreakfast
eponymous with his blog. If you are interested in the wonderment of science and nature, I cannot recommend heartily enough Malcolm’s blog posts and Twitter timeline.

The feature, written by four writers taking on one individual each, was such a great read, that it motivated me to write a quick post to help amplify the message. Do read the news feature on the Nature News site; it has photos and videos as well.

  • Sarah Davis of Australia hand-builds – in her garage – and provides high-quality regular and customized technical glassware to universities, writes Michael Hopkin (Environment and Energy Editor of The Conversation, Australian Edition)
  • Husband-wife team, Jim Harrison and Kristen Wiley, of Kentucky extracts venom from 600-1000 poisonous snakes every week and supplies to universities for biomedical research, writes Kelly Rae Chi (a science and technology writer)
  • Septuagenarian Bill Klimm of Massachusetts collects giant squids and other sea creatures for scientists to study, braving turbulent seas, writes Elie Dolgin (a science journalist)
  • Dawn Johnson of UK, a computer-hardware engineer, keeps the servers running at the European Bioinformatics Institute – a description which belies the true complexity of her job, writes Ewen Callaway (a senior reporter with Nature News)

What touched my heart is a quote from someone, a researcher, about Jim Harrison – “They really become not just suppliers, but almost collaborators in a sense.” It is so true. I can recall the innumerable occasions in which I have had very productive discussions with technical and sales representatives from different reagent and equipment companies. These people are obviously motivated to sell their items, but oftentimes they – especially those who have had scientific training and may have earned PhDs themselves – get caught up in the spirit of doing good science and share their insights and thoughts without reservation.

People like Davis, Klimm, and Harrison provide unique and valuable service to the scientific community, and whether we know them directly or not, one thought would always cause a shudder – what happens when they are no longer with us? Even if they succeed in training the next generation of people for these jobs, will the successors commit themselves to the work with same passion and yearning for excellence? Work such as Klimm’s and Harrison’s often provides the bedrock on which research impacting lives and livelihoods is built. Davis’s technical prowess and creativity help researchers realize their research goals.

And Johnson’s work is such that, as long as she keeps doing it well, the overwhelming majority of people benefiting directly from her expertise and service will never know of her or her efforts.

So, a dashing good job, Mike, Kelly, Ewen, and Elie, in bringing the spotlight upon these tireless, and yet unheralded and often unacknowledged, scientific workers. APPLAUSE.

1 Comment

  1. Kausik Datta

    January 29, 2015 at 4:40 am

    A friend of mine, a chemist by training, made the following comment on Facebook.
    [Quoted with permission; quote slightly edited to remove typos per author’s request]

    “Added to that list: the machinist who cuts through the sheets of metal and welds/ tools to make a metallic component. People don’t realize, this is one area that youngsters can pick up (even as a hobby) – they can have their own business, which has very little competition (since no one wants to do handy jobs, and everything is so tech savvy, these days). They can easily be a sub contractor to universities and research labs, as well as make their own art and sell. Sadly, youngsters have no interest to pick this area, although they cry about not finding jobs. This is an important part of any research, yet it is dying slowly, although the need is ever growing. Those who are in the business, they earn handsomely.”

    [End quote] – Kaushik Mukherjee

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