Scientific Culture From Coast To Coast: Are There Standard Deviations?

Standard Deviations? Perhaps you dream of someday defending your groundbreaking thesis on the formulation of high-temperature superconductors while reclining in a frothing hot tub. Or maybe you picture yourself as a high-powered principal investigator who runs a lab with military precision and wears a tie, keeping it firmly knotted even after the last grad student has called it a night. MIGRANT: Rob Elia has seen science on both coasts. Of course, when you're looking to settle down to a life

May 13, 1996
Karen Hopkin

Standard Deviations? Perhaps you dream of someday defending your groundbreaking thesis on the formulation of high-temperature superconductors while reclining in a frothing hot tub. Or maybe you picture yourself as a high-powered principal investigator who runs a lab with military precision and wears a tie, keeping it firmly knotted even after the last grad student has called it a night.

MIGRANT: Rob Elia has seen science on both coasts.
Of course, when you're looking to settle down to a life of science, you'll want to choose a lab or institution where you can work most productively and receive optimal stimulation from your colleagues. But perhaps you should consider which geographical locale might offer the most natural habitat for your quirks. If you possess a penchant for conducting your affairs from the comfort of your redwood patio furniture, you might consider sampling the culture of sunny California. But if the well-defined routine maintained in a more formal atmosphere makes you feel at home, a big city back East may be your best bet.

Do stereotypes that paint the West Coast as the land of the "laid back" and the Northeast as the home of the "uptight" really apply to life in the lab? "It wouldn't surprise me," says Charles Emmons, a sociologist at Gettysburg University in Pennsylvania who studies science culture. "The biggest myth about science is that it's just pure method. But sociologists think that there's a lot of ideology implicit in how science is done."

In fact, Emmons notes that much of a scientist's training occurs at an informal level, in which mentors teach students how to define and tackle problems, how to conduct research ethically, and how to interact with colleagues. "I think this informal part of science culture could probably be influenced by East- or West-Coast society," he speculates.

Though the evidence for coast-to-coast cultural differences remains largely circumstantial, amusing anecdotes abound. Researchers out West might not be surfer dudes, Valley girls, and Deadheads, but they do engage in certain stereotypical, "fun-in-the-sun" behaviors. "On a nice day, people in lab do go surfing or play volleyball. It's really true," reports Virginia Yao, a postdoc in cell biology at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD).

"There are literally surfboards in the hallways at the Salk [Institute], Scripps [Research Institute], and UCSD," confirms Nils Lonberg, a research scientist at GenPharm International, a biotech company in Mountain View, Calif.

West-Coast scientists do discuss their research in the occasional hot-tub session. In fact, one UC-Berkeley astronomer entertained potential graduate students in his hot tub, according to Harvard University astronomer Alyssa Goodman, who worked at UC-Berkeley before she moved to Boston. Such data would seem to support the hypothesis that laboratory etiquette seems a bit more relaxed on the West Coast. If nothing Goodman says, the West offers hot-and-cold running cappuccino. The California Institute of Technology and UC-Berkeley, she observes, "are actually a lot like Harvard, except they do a lot more business at Starbucks. People actually arrange to have meetings at coffee houses."

At the other end of the country lies the other end of the spectrum. It might not amount to the Revenge of the Nerds, but tweed jackets and bow ties aren't entirely out of place in the more uppity Ivy League institutions of the East. In fact, when Lonberg thinks of the archetypal East-Coast lab, he remembers a senior researcher at Harvard wearing a starched white shirt and a tie, issuing memos on the care of the lab bench to students and postdocs.

Rob Elia, a postdoc in particle physics at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., recalls a fist fight among faculty members who came to blows over who had reserved the seminar room for a meeting. "A 67-year-old faculty member who had a quadruple bypass got punched," he says. Although things never got so rough at the Stanford Linear Accelerator, where he earned his doctorate, Elia thinks such behavior "is not really representative" of life in the East.

"New York City has its own pathologies," says Lonberg, who did a postdoctoral fellowship at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. And bargain-conscious New Yorkers are always on the lookout for opportunities to beat the system. To save a few bucks, Lonberg would order the Plexiglas gel boxes he needed to perform DNA electrophoresis from the Greek deli around the corner from the lab. After admiring the homemade Plexiglas boxes that held the deli's breakfast fare, Lonberg asked the illegal Guatemalan immigrant who worked in the basement to have his cousin (who worked in a machine shop in Brooklyn) assemble some gel boxes for him. Only in a New York deli might you hear, "Gimme a bagel with a shmear, and how about a couple of them 5 x 10 mini-gel boxes?"

Stories are one thing; but are there any real data to indicate that West-Coast researchers take time to get in touch with their inner selves while the Type-A personalities on the East Coast eat, sleep, and breathe work? The National Research Council (NRC) has not compiled any data on the length of time it takes students on either coast to complete their doctorates. And scientists from both coasts report knowing "a guy down the hall" who was still working on his thesis after 15 years.

Based on his observations, Gerard Burrow, dean of the Yale University School of Medicine and former dean of medicine at UC-San Diego, concludes that students on the West Coast do take longer to complete their undergraduate studies. But that's probably more a function of the public university system vs. private institutions, he says.

And maybe a function of the nice weather, speculates Burrow. "On the West Coast, people seemed frenetic, but in a laid-back way," he states. "People would run a couple miles a day, but then they'd stay in lab until midnight." Scientists on both coasts work comparably long hours, reports Peter Fiske, a postdoc in geophysics at Lawrence Livermore National Lab in Livermore, Calif. But on the West Coast, they do occasionally break for a game of Frisbee golf.

"Out here, scientists adopt an additional lifestyle," comments Fiske, a born-and-bred East Coaster schooled at Princeton University. "People are in lab half the time and in an ashram the other half." On both coasts, students groan about the amount of work they have to do. But on the East Coast, students hit the bench while their comrades in the West hit the beach, says Fiske, author of To Boldly Go: A Practical Career Guide for Scientists (Washington, D.C., American Geophysical Union, 1996).

CONTRAST: Rodney Nichols says Easterners favor formality.
"West-Coast labs maintain an open, interactive, cooperative style. Very democratic. You get the feeling that everyone is approachable," comments Rodney Nichols, a physicist who recruited many West-Coast researchers when he was executive vice president of Rockefeller University. "The East Coast is more hierarchical," says Nichols, now chief executive officer of the New York Academy of Sciences. "Formality looms much larger here." In Nichols's experience, young scientists often move through the ranks more quickly out West. "West-Coast institutions reward merit independent of age," he believes.

BENCH OR BEACH? Peter Fiske notes distractions of the West
Are labs on the East or West Coast more productive? Fiske suggests comparing the number of schools from each coast that have departments in the top 20 list compiled by NRC. According to the council's four-year study of research doctorate programs in the U.S. (M.L. Goldberger et al., eds., Research-Doctorate Programs in the United States: Continuity and Change, Washington, D.C., National Academy Press, 1995), the West Coast held its own when it comes to the programs with the highest reputations and most faculty publications. In doctorate pro- grams in geosciences, biochemistry and molecular biology, and molecular and general genetics, for example, West-Coast institutions held as many positions in the top 20 list as did East-Coast schools. (The East nudged ahead in physics and chemistry programs and had twice the number of schools in the top 20 when it came to math.) In total, NRC rated some 1,400 programs in about 100 East-Coast schools and about 250 programs in 30 West-Coast institutions.

Lonberg offers a more creative suggestion for rating productivity. "You should correlate weather-service data with the number of bases sequenced by scientists participating in the Human Genome Project," he says. His guess? More nucleotides are sequenced in the East. "It's dull, grinding work. It's probably hard to convince people to come in from the California sun to do sequencing," he postulates.

The dress code, too, may be largely influenced by the weather. "There are definitely more shorts and sandals here in California," says Yao, who earned her Ph.D. at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx.

SHINING INSIGHT: Gerard Burrow says weather is a factor.
"Not many people wear ski jackets on the West Coast," notes Burrow. But some western labs maintain a community coat for anyone who might be heading out to a winter conference back East, he points out.

Of course, the weather doesn't explain the cross-dressing. John Perona, a crystallographer now at UC-Santa Barbara, says that one UC-San Francisco faculty member is rumored to teach the occasional class in drag. That's one reason Perona, who received his doctorate from Yale University, finds science to be "a pretty cosmopolitan enterprise."

Goodman agrees. "I hate to generalize, coast-wise," she says. "Besides, people on the cutting edge bounce back and forth so much, they probably smooth things out."

Indeed, David Wilner, an astronomer who moved from undergraduate studies at Princeton to grad school at UC-Berkeley to the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Boston, where he is a postdoc, says that "sometimes I forget which coast I'm on." He adds that it's pretty easy to adapt to life on one coast or the other. "It might be difficult if you're particularly nerdy and you move to the West Coast, or if you're used to surfing every day and you move to Princeton," he speculates.

With all the cross-talk generated at scientific meetings, do researchers share some sort of universal method for thinking about scientific problems? Or might the local culture influence their approach, with laid-back types trying to reconcile conflicting models more often than their Type-A colleagues do?

It really depends on how and where the scientist was trained, says Emmons, who studies researchers interested in UFOs. (He hasn't yet compared the transcontinental concentrations of UFOlogists.) But any variations in the way scientists really think about things is likely to be lost once they submit their musings to mainstream, peer-reviewed journals, he says. Scientists may think about problems in different ways, Emmons points out, but in the end they need to write manuscripts and grants that will garner the approval of their peers.

All in all, social differences in individual institutions, departments, or labs probably influence the way that scientists work and play much more than geography. "The world of research is as close to functional anarchy as one can get," remarks Alan Goldstein, chairman of biology at Alfred University in upstate New York. "Elitist attitudes based on geography are plentiful on both coasts, but change as soon as one has relocated. Research scientists are characters on both coasts and everywhere in between."

So how should you choose where you'd be best suited to conduct your research? "If you really want to go white-water rafting, go to Oregon," advises Lonberg. "But the most important thing for your science career is to choose a lab with a reputation for productivity in a place where you'll be around interesting people. Because every lab has its own culture."

Fiske turns to a short story by Ralph Waldo Emerson for his conclusions: "Go east for enlightenment, go west for fulfillment." Lonberg prefers Willie Sutton: "Just go where the money is."

Karen Hopkin is a freelance science writer based in New York City and the senior producer for National Public Radio's "Science Friday." She created the "Studmuffins of Science" 1996 calendar and is online at