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January 15, 2020

What everyone can learn from a day in the life of a cancer researcher

When I tell people what my job is — breast cancer researcher — I sometimes get the impression that they think I’m super smart or somehow special. Now, I do like feeling smart and special (don’t we all?), but here’s the thing: we’ve mythologized scientists in our culture to the point where they don’t seem like “regular” people. At least, that’s what I thought growing up. 

I think we can put that to rest. We researchers, as it turns out, are just as normal as any other demographic. 

 On an average day, I wake up early and start work around 7 am. I don´t have a strict schedule since I plan and execute experiments whenever I choose. But since most of my colleagues come a bit later, I like to start before a queue forms for all the equipment. Usually, that also means I can leave at a decent hour, giving me more time at home with my family in the evenings.

 From 7 to 10 in the morning, I’m managing various experiments. Again, this sounds cooler than it is. In reality, I’m filling a Styrofoam container with ice, labeling plastic tubes, and preparing all kinds of liquids. Sometimes I spend up to two hours just making labels. Tedious, but crucial — without them, I’d never be able to tell the samples apart!

 After my experiments are up and running, I spend an hour reading emails, organizing data, and planning for the next few days. Some days this time is allocated for lab meetings, where my peers and I talk about recent scientific papers or our own results.

 11:00 Lunchtime. 

11:30 Coffee. 

12:00 Diving back in. 

Depending on how the morning went, maybe I start a second round of experiments after lunch, or maybe I sit in front of my computer screen running data analyses and performing administrative tasks. 

On average, I wrap up by 4 o’clock and head to the bus stop. I haven’t made any huge discoveries, haven’t changed the world, and I definitely haven’t cured cancer. (But hey, I’m still young, right?)

By the time I get home half-an-hour later, I’m more or less mentally checked out — just in time to start my second full-time job (taking care of our two kids while my husband goes to work in the home office). 

The rest of the day is diaper-changing, dinner-cooking, and if I’m lucky, watching an episode of my latest K-soap. 


Why am I telling you this? I guess I want to help dispel the notion that research is anything but just another job. Teachers, nurses, software developers, crane operators — all of them perform roles that are just as difficult and just as integral to society as mine (if not more so). 

In the same way that there’s a danger in resisting the scientific way of thinking (I’m not a fan of the term “science denier”), I believe there’s also a danger in putting research — and researchers — on a pedestal. 

We’re people. Average people, in most ways. We make lots of mistakes, and we’re very vulnerable to egotism, selfishness, and ignorance. The greatest myth of science might be that research is unbiased. If only that were the case, we could probably solve all the world’s biggest problems by next week. 

As long as we come short of that ideal (which will probably be forever) it’s at least helpful to know and acknowledge that we’re biased and error-prone. And if the general public knows those things too, it can help us keep our egos in check and our minds set on being accountable. 

Long story short, scientists aren’t special. But that shouldn’t distract us from the fact that science is special. And that’s exactly why we need to be at our best when we’re doing it.

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Rita Turpin  |  Contribution: 145