Two years ago my lab relocated to a new space at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey. The new lab has all that a computer-based grad student could ask for. I have a nice desk, nice chair, new computer, and a quiet place to work. The lab is in the new wing of CINJ. The halls are lined with wood and glass inset shelves. These showcases house flasks and beakers of all sorts. There are circular darkroom entrances and giant banks of vault like freezers. Most university science labs resemble cinder block dungeons, with both architecture and furniture from leftover from the Cold War era. This place looks more like “movie science.” White coats. Sterile surfaces. Petri dishes of progress.
So, what is my favorite part about this place?
The dying cancer patients downstairs.
Ouch. Sounds morbid. Hear me out.
My official field is biomedical engineering. This encompasses everything the name implies, from the bio to the engineering. My particular slice of BME leans heavily towards the engineering. It would not be a lie to say I am doing cancer research, but I am many layers removed from the fighting disease itself. We’ll just say I work on computer and mathematical techniques to explore and interpret medical data.
The patients are seen on the first floor of my building. I pass them in the waiting room on my way into my lab. Most of them are old, though occasionally there are younger people. Most of them have the characteristic gauntness and baldness of the chemotherapy patient. They lack the hurried pace of the researchers who scurry from offices to meetings to labs.
Many people find such a sight of so many cancer sufferers depressing, but it has a different effect on me. I stare at equations and tweak algorithms and make tiny code improvements and blog and surf the web all day. It’s easy for me to waste a day on the internet or leave lab early. It’s easy for me to lose track of the bigger cause which underwrites my work. It’s easy to get frustrated when the math gets ugly and my code throws endless errors. I am not so academic that I will pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake as a full-time job. The patients downstairs remind me that I am both lucky and indebted. They are reminders that I have responsibility to keep moving. However small my part, however corny it sounds, I see them and feel a renewed interest to do my job well. They are a very real admonition that research is more than an academic exercise.
There are thousands of oncologists and nurses who are orders of magnitude more invested in the struggle to cure and treat cancer. They see its effects bedside, while I am, in more ways than one, just a passerby. Yet I am glad to even get the chance to walk by each morning. It is a tiny part of my day, but a large part of my motivation. This is good for patient and researcher alike.