I am writing this article while sat in my lab at the tail end of my lunch break. I am not wearing a lab coat.
In fact there isn’t even a lab coat in this lab. There’s a very nice pair of lab googles and a box of ageing latex gloves but no lab coats, lab sashes, lab pants or lab frilly panties.
For the vast majority of my lab carer I have worn lab coats when working. My first industry job was in a bio chemistry lab and I got to wear a very fetching fabric lab coat. When I moved to academia I worked in a cat 2 clean room so I got to wear a disposable plastic lab coat.
But now I work in a physics lab and lab coat is not very effective protection against lasers. Generally if the laser is coming at me with enough power to burn through cloths it’s often not picky if it’s an expensive lab coat or a jumper from M&S.
But when my kids draw pictures of me at work they always draw me in a lab coat.
I can’t blame them, practically every cartoon and tv show going has scientists in a lab coat. And if they aren’t in a lab coat then they are built like an abecromby and fitch model and spend more time doing death defying feats than science… which both my children appear to not in any way associate with me.
But I think we can all do a little to help reduce this scientist in lab coats trope if we just understood how stupid it is.
Lab coats are for splashy things
A lab coat is what is called ‘personal protective equipment’ or PPE for short. PPE is designed to protect the scientist from something that might kill them (or give them cool looking scars). Lab coats are the kind of PPE you where when your experiment might suddenly decide that it wants to get out of the beaker or test tube it’s in and lunge at you.
Lab coats are a thing that stops said lunging science from getting on your soft delicate skin. They are also things that can be quickly removed if the thing that lunged at you is now trying it’s best to get to your skin by burning through the lab coat.
You only really need a lab coat when you’re working with things that might do this. If you are studying land mine disarming methods a lab coat is probably not going to be much use.
Lab coats are very good at sharing science where you don’t want it
So assuming you have some splashy science (which is a legit field) and do need a lab coat then fine, that scientist is best typified as wearing a lab coat… when they are in the lab. If they have a lab coat outside of the lab then they are a bad scientist.
By being a protecting (and mildly absorbent) layer lab coats stop the nasty chemicals getting to you. But they often then contains some low levels of nasty chemicals (or could do) so on no account should your lab coat then travel outside of the lab.
The only time a scientist in a movie should be seen walking around outside of their lab in their lab coat is when they are the idiot at the start of the film that releases the deadly virus through incompetence.
Lab coats are ill fitting and not very comfortable
Lab coats are not high-tech super amazing coats that contain a myriad of pockets or special high tensile strength fabric. They are cheap, poorly fitting semi-sacrificial coats that in most labs are shared between researchers.
The catalogue for lab coats often has 4 sizes: Small, Medium, Large and Tent. If you have long arms then tough your wrists are getting chemical burns. If you have a chest then you’re going to have problems closing your buttons. Lab coats are designed almost as a one size fits all basis such that they comfortably fit no one.
Nicely tailored well fitting lab coats are either fictitious or owned by scientists that are also excellent sewers.
Hopefully all this has made you re-think lab coats in media or given you some talking points to help educate someone else. All I ask is that we all try and fight the trope of the lab coat wearing scientist and find some other common representative ground. Next time you want to do scientist fancy dress don’t reach for the lab coat, reach for a sign saying “please give me grant” it’s a much more universal symbol.