Making mixtapes and moving on

An illustration showing a scientist tangled in cables

Source: © M-H Jeeves

Chemistry can ensnare you just as much as a tangled aux cord

I am the designated DJ for my lab. It’s not a position I asked for. In fact, I frequently ask my lab mates to take my aux cord privileges away from me. And yet somehow, for the past two years, I have become basically the only person who uses the speaker system that our PI set up.

I have the power to make my lab mates listen to whatever earworm is currently inhabiting my mind, but I also feel a great deal of pressure to choose music that will be universally pleasing. It fills me with a strange tension every time I go to queue up music on Spotify. I would rather have all my reactions fail than accidentally torment my lab mates with music they don’t enjoy.

I try, subtly, to suss out everyone’s music preferences. Our PI likes late 90s alternative rock. One of the grad students has a fondness for Queen. One of my fellow undergraduates always wears headphones, so I assume her music taste is Norwegian death metal or something equally earsplitting. She refuses to tell me.

My Spotify profile now contains several mixtapes created specifically for the lab. Their names vary from the short and simple ‘lab hype’ to the slightly more self-aware ‘jams for chem nerds’. I try to keep the music on them upbeat and energetic without being overwhelming. Sometimes I’ll sneak in a few songs that are my own inside chemistry related jokes, like Atomic Number by Neko Case or Chemicals React by Aly & AJ. If someone mentions that they like a certain song, even in passing, I add it to the list. It seems to be working – the other day, one of our grad students 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 crafting these love letters to my lab? I hate working in silence, so some of it is for my own benefit. But even when I’m listening to music by myself in my room, I make a note of songs to add to the playlists that I think my lab mates might enjoy. Maybe it’s just my people-pleasing tendencies. But I have a feeling there’s more to it than that.

Chemistry was not a field I expected to feel at home in. When I entered college I was nervously pre-med, convinced by my high school experiences that Stem subjects weren’t for me. I resolved to major in English and suffer my way through the scientific prerequisites. I never could have predicted the way I ended up falling in love with chemistry. I abandoned both the English department and my medical aspirations to spend all my time in the lab, the one place I had been convinced I would fail in.

The dull roar of the ventilation is a familiar accompaniment to my cheerful playlists

I come into the lab even when I’m not running experiments, just to do homework or talk with my friends or take care of the veritable garden of potted plants I’ve covered the lab windowsills in. My lab desk is covered in photos of my family and friends, postcards and printed out poems, sticky notes with inside jokes written on them, and possibly every NMR I’ve ever printed out. I only ever work here. The desk in my dorm room is covered in dust.

I even come in on weekends sometimes, when no one else is around, just to play my music to the empty room and work on my problem sets. The dull roar of the ventilation is a familiar accompaniment to my cheerful playlists. I’ve found a true home here. An ecological niche, if the biologists don’t mind me borrowing a term of theirs. But, like a hermit crab, I am outgrowing my shell. I have just graduated and will soon move on to other labs, ones where I won’t control the aux cord, ones that might not even have an aux cord at all.

I’ve been applying to jobs in industry, but with the Covid pandemic restricting my ability to travel I have no idea what the atmosphere of the labs I’m trying to join are. I haven’t been able to go anywhere in person. What if my new lab mates don’t like my playlists?

Graduation was always going to be a major transition, even without the pandemic making the process more daunting. How am I supposed to leave my safe, comfortable lab desk, my favorite songs playing softly over the speakers as I write, and walk out into all of this uncertainty? Fortunately, these two years in lab have given me the tools to find the answer.

There’s a new playlist on my Spotify profile now. I’ve named it ‘new beginnings’.