Lab in a Laptop

The classic view of the scientist is, well, a male who has a beard and crazy hair, wears a labcoat, wears goggles, holds test-tubes, and generally looks like exactly what you’re thinking. This is an image that comes to mind from an early age. In fact, you should check out the wikipedia article on the ‘Draw a scientist‘ test carried out by Chambers (1983). Though dated, the research question and results were telling. A fun and ongoing follow up to this experiment is done at FermiLab, a massive particle accelerator located in Chicago. In their version of the test they ask visiting school groups, who are touring the facility on field trips, to ‘draw a scientist’ when they first arrive and before seeing FermiLab. The children are then asked to ‘draw a scientist’ again when they leave, after having seen what type of work goes on there, and having met the people who do it. Here is one result from a kid named Jesse.

Tangent aside, the classic view of a scientist is someone who wears a labcoat and works in a ‘lab.’ This is certainly not the reality, and I am a perfect example of that (though I do have a beard). I am an astronomer, which is a scientist who studies space. For this I need no test tubes, I need no goggles, I wear no labcoat, I use no chemicals, I mix no solutions; however, I DO have a lab. But my lab is very different than the one you may be thinking of.

A lab is place where scientists can create controlled environments in which to test a question they have. As an astronomer, my lab is my laptop. In it are all the tools I need: word processing software, calculators, image reduction software (like IRAF), analysis packages (like those in IDL or python), and a myriad of other tools and programs I invariably use or curse.

Since all I need to make my research happen is my laptop, I can do my work from many places. Here are a few examples:


This is my desk at York University where I work most of the time. While I can have my laptop anywhere, actually being at school helps me work. It is where my supervisor is, my textbooks (though available online), papers I have printed and made notes on, and other things of this nature. It is also where I am best connected to the school servers that hold all my data. More on that later. 



When we have meetings or colloquia in our department, I can bring my laptop along and run programs or make notes.



This was my desk in my previous apartment. ‘Working from home’ includes both staying home for the day instead of going into the office, as well as pulling longer hours. Meaning, working at the office during the day, coming home for dinner, and then working more hours at home. This is more usual during busy times (like telescope proposal season, for instance).



I have been lucky enough to attend a few conferences and workshops throughout my graduate career. This is SciCoder, a work shop that runs out of New York University; SciCoder teaches astronomers how to program more efficiently. Seriously, astronomers need to be very good programmers.



I have also been lucky enough to travel to a few telescopes. This is the MDM observatory at Kitt Peak, Arizona…

photo (1)…and this is the Hale Telescope at the Palomar Observatory in California. At the telescopes there are many places for you to set up and do some work while a) waiting for your data to collect, astronomical exposure times can be as long as 25 minutes, or b) waiting for your night, it can be prudent to arrive an night early to adjust your sleep schedule.

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Most recently, my newest lab spot is here. At the counter in my apartment.

The cool thing about my laptop as my lab, is that I don’t really need to have anything actually installed on my computer. I use my laptop as portal to the campus servers which house all the software and data. All I need is a secure shell and an internet connection and I instantly have everything I need. WIth the increase in WIFI at various public places, as well as the ability to tether internet through my phone, I’m never without.

Having my lab with me everywhere I go has its ups and downs. On the upside, I have my work with me everywhere, and therefore can always work if I need to. A chemist, biologist, or experimental physicist cannot bring their work anywhere, and will have to spend lots of time at lab on campus. The downside is I have my work with me everywhere. Sometimes it makes me feel guilty when I’m at home and not working on something I should have done. I personally think the benefits outweigh the downsides. I can work from a coffee shop, my home, my office, an airport, a park, public transit, and anywhere else you can think of.


Completing the Tangent:

A scientist is a lot more than the white labcoat and crazy hair stereo-type we all know very well. Most importantly, scientists are not just about science. Scientists are people! Science is their work, but they have lives outside of it. Check out the ‘This is what a scientist looks like‘ tumblr; this project is designed to change the perception of who and what scientists do.

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