An illustration showing a scientist tangled in cables

I am the designated DJ for my lab. It’s not a job I asked for. In fact, I often ask my lab colleagues to take away my aux cord privileges. And yet, for the past two years, I’ve basically become the only person using the speaker system our PI built.

I have the power to get my lab colleagues to listen to the catchy tune that is on my mind right now, but I also feel a lot of pressure to choose music that is generally appealing. It fills me with a strange tension every time I queue up music on Spotify. I’d rather let all my reactions fail than accidentally torment my lab colleagues with music they don’t like.

I try in a subtle way to fathom each individual’s music preferences. Our PI likes alternative rock from the late 90s. One of the graduates has a penchant for Queen. One of my classmates always wears headphones, so I’m assuming their taste in music is Norwegian Death Metal or something similarly deafening. She refuses to tell me.

My Spotify profile now contains several mixtapes specially created for the lab. Their names vary from the short and simple “laboratory hype” to the more self-confident “jams for chemistry nerds”. I try to keep the music on them upbeat and energetic without being overwhelming. Sometimes I sneak into a few songs that are my own jokes about chemistry, like for example Atomic number from Neko Case or Chemicals react by Aly & AJ. If someone mentions that they like a particular song, even in passing, I’ll add it to the list. It seems to be working – the other day one of our graduates went out of his way to compliment the playlist of the day. It was the highlight of my week.

Cheesy mixtapes are a hallmark of teenage romance. So what does it mean that I keep writing these love letters to my lab? I hate working in silence, so part of it is for my own benefit. But even when I listen to music alone in my room, I write down songs to add to playlists that I think my lab colleagues might like. Maybe it’s just my tendencies to please people. But I have the feeling that there is more to it than that.

Chemistry wasn’t a subject I expected to feel at home in. When I got to college I was nervous before going to medical school, convinced from my high school experience that core subjects weren’t for me. I decided to major in English and struggled through the academic prerequisites. I could never have predicted how I fell in love with chemistry. I gave up both the English department and my medical aspirations to spend all of my time in the lab, the only place I was convinced I was going to fail.

The dull roar of the ventilation is a familiar companion to my happy playlists

I come to the laboratory even when I’m not experimenting, just to do homework, talk to my friends or take care of the veritable potted plant garden in which I covered the laboratory window sills. My lab bench is covered with photos of my family and friends, postcards and printed poems, sticky notes with inside jokes, and possibly every NMR I’ve ever printed out. I always only work here. The desk in my dormitory is dusty.

I even come sometimes on weekends when no one is around, just to play my music in the empty room and work on my problem sets. The dull roar of the ventilation is a familiar companion to my happy playlists. I have found a true home here. An ecological niche, if the biologists don’t mind my borrowing a term from them. But my shell outgrows me like a hermit crab. I have just graduated and will soon be moving to other labs where I don’t control the aux cable, where I may not have an aux cable at all.

I’ve applied for jobs in the industry, but with the Covid pandemic limiting my travel options, I have no idea what the atmosphere is like in the labs I want to join. Personally, I had nowhere to go. What if my new lab colleagues don’t like my playlists?

Graduation would always be an important transition, even without the pandemic making the process any more daunting. How am I supposed to leave my safe, comfortable lab bench while I’m writing my favorite songs softly from the speakers and step out into all this uncertainty? Fortunately, those two years in the lab gave me the tools to come up with the answer.

There is now a new playlist on my Spotify profile. I called it “New Beginnings”.

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