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Lab Lockdown LEGOs

As I write this, it feels like COVID is over. Emphasis on “feels”—because despite vaccinations going well and promises of normal fall semesters and re-openings (that have been going on anyway…), the surges elsewhere (especially in India), and the high US plateau (equivalent to last summer’s peak), and replacement of emergency wards and ICUs with younger patients are all reminders that normal life is not yet here. Being vaccinated, I also feel protected, especially surrounded by people who are mostly vaccinated as well, as guidelines enable interactions. Being constantly in the unfortunate state of underappreciation of the present, mourning of the past, and opining about what should be done to make the future better, my at times choleric disposition now turns me to the appropriate next step of upsetedness over what will be lost with COVID in the rearview mirror.

I have been lucky to have gained free time during COVID. I realize others may have not, such as those with young children, or have gotten it reluctantly, like those out of work. However, as a graduate student, now free of the hassles of in person meetings and daily commutes and implicit expectation of always being in lab in some way, shape, or form, the last year brought more free time into my schedule. This was compounded by the research shutdown turned reduced capacity, and by the slowdown of non-COVID related projects. In fact, the COVID research I have been involved with has brought welcome bouts of in person activity and rush of going back to work for a few weeks, only to be interrupted again when we ran out of samples and projects were quickly over, written up, and added the warp speed COVID literature.

So, what have I done with the free time? No, I did not learn R, nor have I written that review. I rediscovered my love for LEGOs. Those tiny colorful overpriced bricks that most people remember as a painful feeling on the bottom of their bare feet as toddlers. LEGOs came back into my life early in the pandemic when I decided to purchase a LEGO set of the TV show Friends in a bout of boredom induced nostalgia. It was a supreme joy to put those 1000+ pieces together—a kinesthetic experience unmatched by any app operated through the touch of an electronic screen. Resolution was 100K, the color depth a billion bits, and the 3D experience mind-blowingly realistic. Following the instructions in a nice, colorful, clearly diagrammed booklet was reminiscent of lab protocols, but the results were so satisfying compared to failed westerns that spelled advisor disappointment and dissertation defense delays. The best part? After I’m done, the LEGOs can be disassembled and tucked away in the box, not cluttering my apartment or my brain, and patiently waiting for the next time I want to repeat the experience. No discussion and future directions needed. Unlike some lab protocols, the same results are guaranteed!

It was a few weeks ago that I decided to take my newfound hobby to the next level. You see, LEGO has a huge online community that only grew in the past year. You can purchase parts and pieces for any custom project and have them shipped to you from all over the world. Free CAD software is available to design, render, and turn into parts lists any project you are willing to spend the time to design. So in a twist of what I now realize is of the utmost irony, I decided, in my free time away from lab, to design, optimize, pay actual money to purchase parts for, and build… my lab space. Huge facepalm. Why? I don’t know. For some reason my brain generated the lab as an important space to immortalize (literally, as LEGO bricks are made of plastic whereas my lab group will move to a new building in 2022, although LEGO has promised to go fully sustainable by 2030). Not my childhood apartment or grandma’s house in war-torn Syria, not a nice landmark or a beautiful scene in nature—the one place I’m reveling in my free time away from: the lab. This makes me wonder—what is it about the lab experience that makes such an emotional imprint?

Why do we develop emotional attachments to workplaces and locations, such as the lab for PhD students, that can be truly difficult environments? While perhaps not traumatic in the usual sense of the word, doctoral work has known psychological implication. This is highlighted by the surprisingly high rates of mental illness, burnout and dropping out witnessed in the graduate student population. In Ep. 49 of the Freakonomics podcast “No Stupid Questions”, the discussion of near-death experiences (again, I am not claiming a PhD is a near death experience!) turns to the phenomenon of post-traumatic growth (PTG, in contrast to the well-known post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD). PTG is the positive outcome that some people experience as a result of surviving trauma. And according to the hosts’ sources, PTG may well be “underdiagnosed” compared to PTSD. PTG could come in the form of personal discovery, new or improved relationships or uncovered opportunities. This struck me as similar to what happens to many graduate students who finish their degrees. For example, many a student ends up with a newfound love of teaching and education during their PhDs. The lab space (or the workspace in general) provides a framework for other professional development and life events to occur, outside the particular project or assignments being undertaken. This, in my non-expert opinion, is what separates this kind of attachment from Stockholm syndrome. The bond is not with the failed western, or the microscope that keeps breaking in the middle of your time-sensitive assay. The attachment is to the lab environment that allowed you to develop your skills and creatively interpret the results, or bond with your lab-mates and work-neighbors to make life more bearable. In other words, the emotional attachment to the lab and the personal fulfillment come from the ensuing growth and relationships resulting from the adversity, rather than the adversity itself. I suspect this phenomenon is not particular to labs—after all Pam chose the bland Dunder Mifflin office building as her magnum opus while pursuing her dream artist career. Notwithstanding the comedy, Michael’s “leadership” would’ve been absolutely disastrous in real life. The show in question, NBC’s The Office, is nine years’ worth of satirizing all the non-work that happens at work.

So what then? Physician-scientist-LEGO designer? What is the wisdom that thou seekest from me? I admit, I did research LEGO designer as a potential alternative career (it’s too competitive). Per Richard Feynman, nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough, including LEGOs. However, balance is key. I am not saying that you should prioritize non-work in lab or shy away from challenging problems, but if all emotional fulfillment comes from experiments and results, burn out is bound to happen when a string of failures undoubtedly hits. The time we spend on our equivalent of LEGOs is not “wasted”- we might end up building our “labs” and realizing how much we miss our productive spaces. Alas, that feeling for me was fleeting, or perhaps quickly satiated. With reopening, I am back in the grimness of the lab routine, mourning the free time I no longer have with my LEGOs.

Michael Sayegh, PhD, @Michael_Saying

MD/PhD Student, Emory University

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