The Lab Challenge
In summer 2004, Grant Barish was handed a ball of aluminum foil the size of a cantaloupe. It's a lab tradition, explains HHMI investigator Ron Evans. Junior postdocs get awarded the foil ball as part of an elaborate ceremony in which they pledge allegiance to the lab and the principles for which it stands—a recitation that concludes with the solemn promise, So help me, Ron.
I've got to work on bulking up my ball, says Barish, the lab's newest postdoc. Each recipient must add to the shiny orb using scraps of foil that were used to cover various pieces of lab glassware. I guess it's a sign that you're working hard, laughs Barish. Indeed, Evans says, the ball will be weighed and evaluated before being passed on to the next postdoc. People boo if you don't do it right.
A different tradition awaits those who leave the lab. After giving their last seminar, departing members get carried from the building and tossed into the Salk Institute's reflecting pool. Nowadays, people are a little wiser, says Evans. They keep a towel in the lab and bring a change of clothes.
In addition to these initiation rites, members of Evans's lab also engage in odd tests of physical ability. Recent competitions have included the Ice Bucket Challenge, in which participants see how long they can keep a hand in a bucket of ice, and the Hanging Challenge, which involves dangling from a fence on campus. It's a lot harder than people think, says Peter Olson, a senior graduate student whose best time on the fence—1 minute, 45 seconds—falls somewhere in the middle of the lab scores.
The silliness is a refreshing change from benchwork, says Olson. We all work really hard. The competitions and other amusements provide a welcome break and are by and large a blast, he says.
Evans encourages a light spirit in the lab because he believes that in the end, the socializing actually helps the science. The more interaction you have with others, the more effective you'll be at solving tough problems, says Evans.
A sense of humor also helps to make Evans very approachable, says Barish. High-powered scientists can be intimidating, he notes. But Ron is down to earth, and talking with him is easy—something that certainly benefits the research.
It's the research that draws people to Evans's lab. The science is top-notch, says Olson, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, where he spent summers in Santa Cruz meandering through the redwood forests and generally digging biology.
In the Evans lab, students team up with postdoctoral fellows to learn how to design and conduct experiments, a situation Olson sees as an advantage. Postdocs in this lab go on to become professors in the best institutes in the world, he says. And as students, we have an opportunity to work closely with them in their prime.
Olson chose to work with Evans because the problems he tackles are ones that Olson says advance our understanding of basic biology with the ultimate goal of therapeutic intervention.
That potential link to human health was particularly attractive to Barish, who trained as an M.D. before joining Evans's group to study the role that receptors such as PPAR-gamma play in health and disease. I deal with diabetes on a daily basis. I prescribe PPAR-gamma agonists to patients, says Barish. It's refreshing seeing things from the other side—trying to understand the molecular underpinnings of disorders he treats in the clinic. I didn't come to the lab with the same technical arsenal as some postdocs, says Barish. But Ron appreciates my having a medical background.
As Barish prepares to apply his clinical perspective to studying the cellular physiology of fat metabolism, Olson is preparing to move on. He is wrapping up and writing papers about his work on mice with mutations in PPAR-gamma or PPAR-delta. Ron has been great, says Olson, who is considering his next steps. Evans has told him he can graduate when he's ready—or he can stay and start a postdoc while he's looking for another job.
Perhaps the latter plan would be better. First off, if Olson lingers in Evans's lab, he can postpone moving. Right now, he lives in university-owned housing. It's a two-bedroom apartment with an ocean view, says Olson. And I know it's going to be the best place I'll ever live.
But perhaps more important, he'll get handed the foil ball rather than hurled into the reflecting pool—at least for now.
Photos: Courtesy of William Alaynick, Evans Laboratory
© 2013 Howard Hughes Medical Institute. A philanthropy serving society through biomedical research and science education.