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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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August 3, 2006

The Last Word on Eerie Glowing Labs

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Posted by Derek

My posts on lab photography (here and then here) stirred up comment from all over the place, split about evenly between people on either side of the camera back. Most of the scientists agreed that the shots I complained about are silly-looking, but it was correctly pointed out that if researchers who felt that way would speak up while the pictures are being taken, we'd see fewer examples of the form.

The comments from photographers, which appeared after the original posts here, on various other discussion sites and in e-mail, were more varied. Some agreed that the purple glows were an overused device, and said that they weren't using them any more. Others said that they wish that they could drop them, but that their clients (art directors and PR people) wanted things the way they usually are: bizarrely colorful. A few photographers thought that they were just fine, and a related (and larger) fourth group pretty much told me to stick to talking about things that I might have a chance of understanding.

After taking in all these suggestions, even a couple of physically implausible ones, here's my summarized take on the issue:

First off, we shouldn't necessarily blame the photographers, many of whom (as just mentioned) are giving their paying customers what they want, whether they think it's a good idea themselves or not. The observation was made, with great vigor, that publicity shots are not photojournalism.

I take the point, which was also made to me by my seven-year-old son one day when he noticed that the pictures of hamburgers on highway billboards bear little resemblance to what lands on your table down at Burger Chute. The thing is, the burger photographers are there to make the product look better, and the people who cook them presumably don't think that the billboards look completely ridiculous. Scientists, though, find the colored-spotlight school of photography laughable - but again, let's not blame the photographers. The problem lies elsewhere.

To some people, many of whom work in some form of public relations, nothing says "laboratory" quite like colored spotlights. The intention is to grab the eye, and the problem is that regular laboratory life doesn't do that very well. If we want to lose the special effects, we're going to have to either come up with a less ridiculous way to make an eye-grabbing picture, or convince the PR people that the light shows aren't doing the job. (In which case, we're going to need something to suggest in that first category anyway).

Some ideas have been offered, such as trying to get shots of real things that happen to be colorful: fluorescent TLC plates and large color-banded chromatography columns, perhaps. It's true, though, that in many labs there aren't even that many opportunities. But even getting people to switch to some of the various neon-colored disposable gloves would be less laughable than having their entire labs glowing behind them. Unusual camera angles and other compositional tricks have also been suggested, but these will always come at a cost in time and effort which may not be payable. The problem is, real art directors and brochure layout people will have to be exposed to the results of these ideas before we know if any of them are effective.

What's that? You say that perhaps we should check with the broader public who will actually be viewing the eventual brochures to see what they think? Nonsense - what do you think a public relation person's job is, if not to give the public what the PR department is sure it will like? Next!

As for convincing these folks that the standard rainbow shots aren't desirable, well, that might be a hard sell. There's an invisible line between "useful visual shorthand" and "grating stereotype", and the discussion quickly devolves into unresolvable matters of taste. For my part, I'm sure that I'm right in thinking that these shots are uselessly cheesy, but I could end up in an elevator with someone who's equally sure that they're eye-catching and effective. And science is far from the only profession to suffer from this problem, as a query to any real police officer about the realism of prime-time police dramas will make clear. It may be that in the end, we're stuck with the otherwordly glows whether we like them or not, or whether they do any good or not.

Perhaps we can even go beyond blaming the PR people and blame the whole culture (always a popular move). For hundreds of years, the image of the scientist has been only a flicker away from that of the magician. For many people, what we do in our labs might as well be sorcery for all they understand it. And how many mad scientists have haunted pulp novels and cheap movies over the years? Is it any surprise that we end up with eerie lights washing over us? What else would you expect?

Comments (10) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Life in the Drug Labs


1. Postdoc on August 3, 2006 9:41 PM writes...

I'll never forget the first time I showed my parent my grad lab when they came to visit (a very average academic lab setup). They walked in with this very distressed look and said, "you" I sometime wonder where they got the idea it would be like NASA. I wanted to throw dry ice into the sink to ease their minds.

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2. Brooks Moses on August 4, 2006 1:44 AM writes...

Postdoc: And just why do you think NASA is any different? :)

(Ok, yeah, some of it is; physical experiments on a grand scale tend to be. But all the nitty gritty small-scale science labs behind the grand-scale stuff -- and I've visited a number of NASA places -- look just like every academic lab I've ever been in.)

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3. Jeremiah on August 4, 2006 7:56 AM writes...

For a group of people that take pictures because they can't do anything else, photographers sure are prima donnas.

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4. Postdoc on August 4, 2006 8:09 AM writes...

I've actually did some science at NASA. The labs I were in in Houston were quite nice. Like you say, though, I'm sure they have their crap too.

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5. tom bartlett on August 4, 2006 8:15 AM writes...


When I was in grad school, I had the usual dumpy chem lab; my Chess buddy in Philosophy had a nice clean, quiet, comfy office. One likes to think I have the last laugh, since one imagines chemistry is more employable than Philosophy, but the dude has probably long since cashed the MBA fame-and-fortune meal ticket and is probably doing quite well.

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6. Scott on August 4, 2006 9:25 AM writes...

Well, now that you've managed to throw various PR hacks into the "insulted" group you can probably get another 6-8 various posts out of THEIR responses. I agree with your initial premise that those photo's look sort of ridiculus. I've thought that myself early in my career when I was forced to pose for one.

Having said all that, I much more enjoy your posts that have something to do with chemistry. Funny how chemists react that way. Please move along...nothing to see here!

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7. Derek Lowe on August 4, 2006 10:41 AM writes...

Only if I get another 25,000 hits and a flood of e-mail from the PR hacks, Scott. Which (on both counts) is unlikely. On the whole, I'd rather deal with the photographers.

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8. Colby Cosh on August 4, 2006 3:12 PM writes...

Maybe the real problem was that you were just being too ambitious. Why attack the lab-flooded-with-spooky-violet-light cliche, a product of the era of glossy PR/advertorial content, when we still haven't even managed to kill off the old "holding an Erlenmeyer flask up to the light and looking dead serious and pensive" chestnut, which dates back to Hermes Trismegistus? First things first, am I right?

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9. Anonymous on August 4, 2006 8:31 PM writes...

At some point in time all of your science, chem labs and the like will all seem like a standard rainbow shot to those who will look back on these photos with a look of horror on their faces as they see the stonaged equipment that you thought of as cutting edge.
I beg of you to think of the photos as a way for those in the future to gaze upon the face of the past not as in a rainbow effect but as in a way to see their own mortality and to know that someday they too will be looked upon as stonaged as well.There are no photos that will remind those in the future of how awful the photography was during your lifetime but will rather remind them of how simple minded we were in our own age of cutting edge research and life.

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10. srp on August 9, 2006 7:47 PM writes...

The answer is simple: jazz up your labs. I think an operating table on a telescoping hydraulic ram that projects through a hole in the roof next to a lightning rod would do the job nicely. Photographers would have no problem setting up a cool shot without purple lights. Don't forget to include one of those big square-y lever-switches. Then all you'll have to do is name one of your postdocs Igor and practice a maniacal cackle.

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