What if science were all rainbows and sparkling neutral*?


Some of my friends spent their long August bank holiday weekend in the lab. (Luckily, nobody from my lab – I was in on Tuesday and the place was dead even then!) Some of them took the opportunity to have a bit of a holiday. Me? I went to BABS Harmony College.

No, really. Think “band camp” but for barbershop. Yes, it’s a real thing. Yes, I am aware this sounds like the least cool thing ever – and I’m a scientist. I wasn’t cool to begin with. As it happens, it was just about the most fun I’ve had in the whole of 2012. (Yes, more fun than an impromptu 2 weeks in Copenhagen for work. Yes, more fun than learning twisting somersaults. Trust me, I really enjoyed this).

Anyway, this is a biology blog right – so why am I talking about barbershop?

Although I was really there to learn stuff, I spent an inordinate amount of time (my earliest night was 1:30am) singing with complete strangers. By chance or design I spent time singing with some really good people. I’m a bit of a barbershop newbie, so I recognise the names of medal-winning quartets, but not the people who sing in them. So I would be casually enjoying being taught the part for something and then my friend would just throw into the conversation that oh, by the way, that was 50% of gold medal winning quartet X from year Y. And I would melt in a pool of fan-girl-ness.

So why is any of this important? At some point on Saturday night, I mentioned this to the (ridiculously talented) guys I was singing with – that I was kinda embarrassed every time this happened. Who was I, singing with them? (And “singing” is giving me credit – at this point I had just finished blagging my way through Once Upon A Time, which I’ve never sung my part for, never mind the lead (melody) part, while their lead sang it in my ear, in a key well outside of my range.) And they were completely confused. As far as they were concerned, they love this music. I love this music. They want more people to hear this music, and for me to be better at singing this music. Therefore they will sing it with me.

I haven’t had a buzz like this in ages. Especially not about science. There was a time when the warm fuzzy feeling that I still haven’t lost five days later could be triggered by science. When every little thing about biology excited me. There was a time when it felt like the scientific community wanted me to be the best I could be, because we need more scientists and there’s plenty of science to go around anyway. There was a time when a person’s reputation meant very little to me: I just wanted to learn and wasn’t afraid who I ended up asking questions of.

Now I’m a bit older; a bit wiser; a bit more cynical. I realise that there’s only so much pie to go around, and actually it isn’t in people’s best interests to encourage me. But I can’t help wonder what science would be like if it were a bit more like barbershop? If it weren’t so competitive, if it weren’t publish or perish, if we weren’t all scrabbling for money? If everyone was just desperate for everyone else to be the best that they could be?

Maybe I’m romanticising an amazing weekend away, and maybe I’m just a bit depressed by the state of science this week… And maybe this makes me feel like the girl in Mean Girls who ‘doesn’t even go here’

But the more I think about it, the more I feel like we’ve got something wrong along the way here.

And on that slightly melancholy note, have some barbershop. (These guys are the current international silver medallists. Even if you don’t think you like barbershop yet, hit play. It’s really good!)

* Sparkling neutral is what we call the bright eyed ready-to-sing position. Think spirit fingers. But with your eyes.

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