Science - February 14, 2013

Laughter in the lab

From practical jokes involving dry ice to cartoons about the tough life of a PhD student, there is enough hard evidence that PhD students have their own brand of nerdy office humour, with an academic flavour. It is a great way of generating a community spirit, but there are other motives lurking below the surface too...
text: Emma Diemont and Rob Ramaker

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One Friday afternoon Raymond Staals, researcher at Microbiology, was quietly working away on an article. Suddenly his colleague Tom van de Weijer stormed in and chucked washing up liquid and water into a bucket containing 2.5 kilos of dry ice - solid CO2. In a flash, Staals' office became a giant bubble bath. Meanwhile, his colleague was racing off to start his weekend, leaving Staals with the delightful job of tackling the mess with an industrial vacuum cleaner.
The PhD students at Microbiology snigger at the memory of the instant bubble bath. It is the end of Friday afternoon now too, and they are talking over a beer about the possibilities dry ice offers for practical jokes. Analyst Philippe Puylaert remembers getting the shock of his life, for instance, when a waste bin exploded while he was working. A PhD student had put a plastic tube full of dry ice in the bin, which had exploded when the internal pressure built up through the production of CO2 gas. "Oh yes, dry ice pranks,' someone sighs, 'you could write a book about them.'
PhD humour can be found right across the university, in labs, shared offices and coffee bars. Its characteristics: nerdy, full of self-mockery, a tad cynical and often only intelligible to insiders: PhD students or even just three hyper-specialist co-researchers. Practical jokes with dry ice are typical of natural science students, but PhD humour is broader than that. 'We like poking fun at a certain type of researcher,' explains Marc Schut, now a postdoc at Knowledge, Technology and Innovation. 'The type who spends his Sunday evenings with a glass of cognac in one hand, a cigar in the other, conducting a LinkedIn discussion about the problems in the world.'
'The existence of a particular brand of humour is not unique to the academic world,' says Giselinde Kuipers, professor of Cultural Sociology at the University of Amsterdam and chief editor of HUMOR: International journal of humor research. 'If you research it, you find it in other closed groups too, such as dock workers or police corps. If you put people together in a small space to work together on a project, a kind of group thinking will often arise, with its own brand of humour.' The degree to which this happens varies from one discipline to the next. In sociology, the field in which Kuipers got her PhD, people have more space and often work more individually. As a consequence, their humour does not become quite so 'ritualized'. For researchers working in laboratories, it is very important to be on good terms. Kuipers: 'People crack inside jokes deliberately to create a sense of belonging.'
R2D2
'The humour at Phytopathology is real nerd humour,' jokes Hanna Rovenich, 'but that is how we see ourselves.' The machines in the lab all have nicknames like R2D2, the name of the Star Wars robot, and PhD researchers are named after their topic. So Jordi Boshoven is the King of Colletotrichum, a family of fungi, and Dirk-Jan Valkenburg is the Prince of Pichia, a group of yeasts. Sociologist Marc Schut once found himself thrown together with colleagues on a trip through northern Zimbabwe when their car got stuck in the mud. To keep their spirits up, the group made up new lyrics to the tune of Welcome to the Jungle. Every time Schut hears the Guns 'n' Roses song now, it brings back the memory.
The extent to which PhD humour is for insiders only is often clear at degree ceremonies. At the party afterwards, the graduate's colleagues often show a film, put on a skit or hold a quiz. They grab their chance to expose their colleague's quirks or take the mickey out of his or her research subject. The graduate's fellow researchers are often splitting their sides laughing, while family members look on in bafflement. It will soon be Virology PhD researcher Stefan Metz's turn. 'I guess they will have a go at my Coca-Cola addiction.'
PhD students spend four years on some microscopic subject. The jokes about this, especially those requiring some background knowledge, are by definition only for your neighbour in the lab. To some extent, inside jokes are inevitable, Kuipers confirms. 'Scientists speak their own language and use words that are incomprehensible to outsiders.'
Quite a bit of teasing goes on among PhD students too. Some of the microbiologists make a running gag of each other's object of study. Researchers of the bacterial immune system CRISPR have an ongoing rivalry as to which is the most interesting protein: Cascade or CRM. And the scientists working with poo are an easy target: 'They work with the HITChip and of course it is referred to as the ShitChip.' These sorts of jokes are largely a man thing. Which is often the case, says Kuipers. Men are far more likely to create a 'teasing' culture. But there are clear limits to it. It is no laughing matter if someone is going through a bad patch because an article was rejected, for instance. The PhD students are far too aware of how that feels to make a joke of it.
Serious
Being so hard to pin down, humour can serve several different purposes at the same time, Kuipers emphasizes. 'Humour can help build strong cohesion,' she says, 'but there is often something serious underlying it. Beneath all the jokes there is a struggle going on about the hierarchy, and power relations are being negotiated.' Humour is a way of avoiding conflict and keeping the vying for position implicit. Which is very handy if you have to work together in a small space for years.
In the laboratories, the serious issue of safety is often tackled with a modicum of humour. It falls to Philippe Puylaert as safety officer at Microbiology to draw people's attention to unsafe situations. 'Not such a nice job', he says, and he does it with regular emails showing photos of, for example, dirty acid cupboards or unreplenished stores. With a jokey caption beneath them ('Don't let people call you caustic') they work better that long stories that nobody listens to, says Puylaeart. In turn, PhD students make fun of the safety regulations. 'There are more and more rules about safety,' says Metz. 'We sometimes send them up, drawing extra lines on the floor or making up ridiculous rules ourselves.'
Jorge Cham
PhD humour can also be full of cynicism about the students' own situations. A good example is the cartoon series PhD in which cartoonist Jorge Cham, himself a Stanford PhD holder, has some gently cynical fun with 'life, or the lack of it' at university. At one time, the cartoon announced that unemployment was more lucrative than PhD research (in America) and showed PhD students angling for the leftovers from their professors' lunch. The cartoonist also has a ball with the contrast between high-flown scientific ideals and the banal reality of the everyday practice.
One of the recurring jokes in PhD is that of the professor who never has time for supervision, has clear favourites or exploits his students for his own glory. It is not surprising, says Kuipers, that the relationship between PhD students and their supervisors is the butt of jokes. 'The relationship with a supervisor simply is very asymmetrical. The PhD student is very dependent, while every supervisor has between five and seven supervisees.' For an American student, this is even worse than it is in the Netherlands. Metz is not a great fan of the cartoon series, but he does recognize the issues. 'We all have the same problems and irritations. One person more than another, but we are all in the same boat.' He sees such humour as a good way of putting things in perspective. 'It makes life at work much nicer.' Microbiologists love the PhD cartoons too. Especially the cartoon about email. It shows a PhD student sweating for days on a polite email, in an attempt to make an impression. And the professor replies, 'Do it'.
 
No laughing matter
Humour is slippery stuff. A joke can mean different things to different listeners. If you are popular and feel at home in a group, you might well laugh your head off at a joke at your expense. But if things are not going so well for you, it can be excruciating to have to laugh along when the boss puts you 'in the spotlight'.  
Cultural differences can make it hard for people to understand each other's humour too. This comes up in Wageningen, with its more than 160 different nationalities. Dutch humour is particularly likely to engender culture shock. Dutch jokes are often hard and 'in your face'. 'The Dutch think you should be able to crack a joke about anything, and that people should be able to take a joke about anything,' says Giselinde Kuipers, professor of Cultural Sociology. Humour can backfire in a situation like that, she thinks. 'Imagine a department where people know each other very well. If they are constantly cracking hard Dutch jokes, newcomers can be put off.'  

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