Do not disturb

As a graduate student in evolutionary genetics at the University of Edinburgh, I experienced a fundamental shift in the way science is done. In my first year, we had a radio softly humming along in the corner of lab, tuned to talk radio when I could help it, and top 40 music when I couldn't. Either way, however, my lab mates and I were always conversing—sometimes about what was on the radio, sometimes about life in general, but quite often about our ongoing experiments.

All that changed with the arrival of iPods, or portable MP3 players, in my second year at the bench. Without the need to pussyfoot around the radio dial, we were all free to plug in our ear buds and recoil into our own aural oases. I loved it, and often listened to science-related podcasts. But part of me suspects I may have been...

Some say yes. "iPods have made labs a little more insular, which I'm not at all convinced is a good thing," says cell biologist Richard Grant, who, in March, quit the lab after 15 years to become the business development manager for Faculty of 1000 in London (although not because of any Apple product).

Do iPods make us worse (or better) scientists?

"Once you have an iPod in your ears, no one talks to you," agrees Marissa Sobolewski-Terry, a graduate student studying the effects of hormone levels on chimpanzee aggression at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. "If you have headphones on, you're not to be disturbed." You might get more work done, but you don't learn as much from your peers, she says.

However, Carl Cohen, president of Science Management Associates, a Massachusetts-based consultancy group for science-based organizations, and the coauthor of Lab Dynamics: Management Skills for Scientists, says that iPods might actually help foster creative—rather than frivolous—scientific discourse. "Because people can gather themselves quietly in the confines of their iPods, when the time comes for discussion they may be even more eager to share," he says—and preventing scientists from spouting off about whatever crosses their mind might not be a bad thing.

Cohen isn't the only person to praise the iPod's insurgency into the lab. Portable music devices provide personal hideaways from the hectic lab environment, says Kathy Barker, a former microbiologist and the author of two practical laboratory guidebooks. Even before the advent of iPods, "I remember when people would put on headphones with no music when they wanted to not talk to a particular person or needed to focus," she says.

Renee Edlund, a neuroscience grad student at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, describes her iPod as "basically my sanity in the lab." She plugs in for around five hours each day, mostly listening to podcasts of talk radio shows. "Without it, I don't know if I'd still be in science, to be honest," she says. "I just put in my little ear buds and I'm out of [the politics of the lab]. I can just focus on preparing my acrylamide gel."

But too much focus can be fatal. When you can't easily chat with labmates, even the small things become awkward chores, says Cynthia Downs, a graduate student at the University of Nevada, Reno, who studies mouse metabolism. For example, when she's tending to her mice in the animal facilities, "it's horrible," she says, "because I can't even ask the animal carer [listening to the iPod] for paper towels."

iPods can also drive up costs. Besides the fact that each lab member is now dishing out hundreds of dollars on electronics, segregating the lab's soundtrack can cause consumable costs to rise. Grant says that he goes through latex gloves much quicker when he's wearing headphones. "I won't put a glove hand to my ear and go back to doing a PCR."

Still, anyone who aims to curb iPod use in the lab has a hard road ahead, says Sobolewski-Terry. "I think a lot of people would be pissed off if someone said 'no iPods in the lab,'" she says.

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