Debbie Letham with her grandfather, a carpenter
Perspective
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Deborah Dormady Letham, PhD

Scientists are Like Carpenters

They build the future, one assay and one brick at a time

Scientists are like carpenters; we like to lay firm foundations and develop good strong systems. Scientists are usually not worried about climbing the corporate ladder but building it, putting in the scientific infrastructure for knowledge gathering, teaching, and seeing others (especially routine testing technicians) succeed. Scientists stand on the shoulders of others who went before us. A science company helping clients get lifesaving and life-improving products to market, like CRL, needs scientists and scientists need laboratories.

Seeing new laboratories being built for our Methods Development expansion into a new building has been so very exciting and reminds me that we all, tradesmen or scientists, use tried and true techniques. My grandfather, shown above with me, was a carpenter, 70 years in the Carpenter's Union. What my Grandpa built still stands. What my great-grandfather built also still stands. They built houses Stone Wheel -- Scientists are like Carpenters Blogduring the economic boom that followed soldiers returning from WWII. My great-grandfather also built airplanes in WWI. I remember at the age of 5 or 6 watching my Grandpa set the concrete foundation and secure the metal posts for my swing set. That was 45 years ago, and the swing set still stands and swings. Same with the swing set prepared at least 75 years old at the family farmhouse. The wood seats have been replaced again and again for rot, but the steel girder beams stand tall, and the swings still swing. If a floor needed one nail per board, he put six. If you had an exposed nail anywhere, he'd go get his tools. My Grandpa's fingers and hands were enormously thick from 70-plus years hammering. Our family way back to the 1700's built wagon wheels for the local farms of cornfields. The family farmhouse in the old country still has them embedded in the stone wall. The wheels allowed the farmer's wagons to get to work.

If you went anywhere with my Grandfather, you would find him studying the supporting structures of buildings. He worked hard figuring how things worked. He had an eighth-grade education but a lifetime of learning. When he retired his hands didn’t remain idle for long, working on gifts for his family. I have birdhouses, boxes for cookie cutters, trinket display boxes, butterfly houses, CD holders, thread holders and whirlygigs. He built HUNDREDS of spiral spinning whirlygigs. (I find it so cool that they look like DNA spirals).

I remember especially that he made us sign and date everything we built. I now work in a lab, and we sign and date everything we record in our notebooks and lab records. Sometimes we record values, sometimes we do math, sometimes we mix reagents and assign lot numbers to track samples, sometimes we build an experiment from a journal publication. When we sign and date, it shows both that it was done and that we were the ones who did it.

Recently, we have been signing and dating everything in preparation for these sparkling brand-Charles River Labs at PA Biologicsnew laboratories, specially designed and built for us to develop our Methods Development assays. The lab is beautiful, clean, and inspiring. Our work developing infrastructure for testing allows others to work. We are building upon knowledge, learning, and teaching. Even though carpentry and lab work are different skill-wise, I’ve been thinking of similarities of what I do to what my Grandfather did. In his case, he built, taught, then stood back to see others use his buildings. In the lab, we build, teach, and then stand back to see others use our experiments.

My grandfather would have liked to have seen these labs. He would have liked to pick up a hammer too. He would have asked a thousand questions about the structure and materials. That's what we do as scientists AND carpenters. We build. We ask a thousand questions. We like to make things work.

With thanks to all, let's now get the wheels in our heads and our labs moving and let’s get to WORK!!!