Humans are an inventive bunch. We’re not long out of the trees and our brains have already given us literature, art and the sciences. We are a creative species that constantly seeks to invent, create and problem solve. However, as smart as we are Nature is often one of the most elegant problems solvers there is.

Nowhere is this more true than in the humble microorganism. Working with just a single cell nature has managed to create life that can survive the vacuums of space, volcanic vents and even live on those plastic ‘cheese’ slices. Natural selection has produced some of the most resilient species on the planet and we have a lot to learn from them.

As researchers trying to make it in this ever changing world there are so many pressures on us. Some are somewhat more complicated than those dealt with by microorganisms. I’ve yet to read a paper on the survival rates of microorganisms grown in a Petri dish with nutrients supplied via tiny funding panels. But many of the pressures are more basic and are just like those faces by our microscopic cousins. I think it’s time that we took some cues from our smallest ancestors and apply some of their hard evolved resilience to lab life.

Surviving lab temperature

In most research institutes the consistency of a lab’s temperature can be thought of as being equivalent to the consistency of out of control yoyo… in a faulty tumble drier. They widely change between a range of extreme temperates sometimes depending on the seasons, sometimes depending on the availability of heating maintenance people.

Now bacteria have evolved to survive extreme temperatures in a wide range of ways. Some have special heat repairing proteins, other’s have highly branched cell walls and some tightly coil up all their DNA to protect it. These are all viable strategies for a temperature sensitive researcher to learn from.

If you get too hot, go out and buy some restorative ice cream. It might take a few generations of selective breeding until humans can produce their own ice cream / heat repairing protiens internally, so until then its best consumed in a cone.

Too cold then put on an extra fluffy lab coat. You generally can’t get branched fur but if you just keep adding more fur the effect will be much the same.

Lastly, hunker down in the corner of the lab in a tightly wrapped blanket. It’s hard to effectively coil yourself up but luckily we’ve invented blankets which we can coil round ourselves instead.

Now some bacteria survive in very cold environments by producing a kind of antifreeze. We don’t recommend drinking antifreeze because this will likely have a significant impact on your ability to do research… and breath.

Living with intermittent coffee and snacks

Various microorganisms have to deal with sudden scarcities of food and water. Not being able to ‘nip to the supermarket’ or pull over for a ‘frothy vente frappe’ has meant that they have had to evolve to live without these necessities for long periods.

Similarly researchers are all too often made to work thought long meetings without coffee or in dire cases, event biscuits. I’ve known some researchers be told that they have to work 1-2 hours at a time without a coffee break. Research is a tough job.

Now bacteria survive these crippling droughts by converting themselves into a endospore. When in this spore form they go into a kind of dormant state and reduce their resource requirements down to the point where they can go long periods without a single pink wafter biscuit (or the bacterial equivalent).

This again is something we can draw inspiration from. By reducing your activity you can last longer between refreshments. Stuck in a meeting without coffee or biscuits? Well simply make yourself comfortable and have a short nap. Stuck in the lab without a coffee break? Pile up some lab coats and have a short sleep. To take it one step further again try to emulate bacteria and covering yourself in a tough protective blanket will help enormously.

Of course resilience is just one part of being successful. Microorganisms wouldn’t be the thriving community they are without applying their greatest survival strategy, reproduction. So once you’ve mastered resilience focus hard and see if you can crack asexual reproduction, just think dividing thoughts.

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How To Be A Resilient Researcher — The Top Mag · 23 April 2021 at 11:56

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