Wednesday, 22 July 2009

A week in my life...

I was recently asked to submit an article about a typical week in my life for the Journal of Physiology quarterly magazine. Apprently, it's regula feature about people of interest to the world of Physiology. As a Neuroscientist and comedian, that sort of makes me interesting. Or so they think.
Anyway, I did what I thought best. The following is the article I put together. Obviously, before anyone points it out, the week detailed never happened for real, it's a composite of interesting things that happened on different days which, had they occurred in succession, would have made a very interesting week. As George from Seinfeld says, "If you take everything I've achieved in my entire life and condense it down to one day, it looks decent".
Any pointers, quips, instructions for better written work are greatly appreciated. I don't think I'm doing too badly for someone who's professional training consisted largely of staring at rats for long periods. But see what you think, on the off chance it does get published I imagine it'll be edited a fair bit.

1 Week in the Life of… A Neuroscientist Comedian

In my experience, if you tell a stranger you’re a Neuroscientist, they react with a mixture of surprise, admiration and suspicion. Tell someone you’re a comedian, they respond in the same way but in a more exaggerated manner. Tell someone you’re a Neuroscientist comedian, they simply dismiss the ludicrous statement and start discussing the weather.

My desire to entertain is something of a family trait, but my skewed world view and overly analytical mind has always resulted in me being drawn to science, which is why I’m completing my PhD in Behavioural Neuroscience. Many comedians started off as scientists (Dara O’Briain, Harry Hill etc.), but very few have tried to combine science and comedy, with (as I’ve discovered) good reason. But I persevere, and slowly, it seems to be working. It’s impossible to describe my experiences and career structure with any accuracy in a short article, so here’s a basic rundown of a typical week in my life.

Monday: Monday usually begins with checking my subjects, if I have any. Weighing, checking health, food levels etc. My family still thinks being a Neuroscientist is some glamorous occupation. If this is the case, a morning being scratched, bitten and defecated on by three dozen rats should keep me grounded. After this, I do more work on my next experimental set-up, performing cutting edge research armed with a large box, some old Christmas decorations and a packet of coco-pops. The glamour is almost intoxicating at this point.

In the evening, I attend a friend’s local gig to try out new material. I mention that I work with animals and another act gets very aggressive and says, I quote, “You’d better not do any of that near me, I’m a vegetarian”. The inanity of this statement leaves me dumbstruck. He then proceeds to do a set about paedophilia, which strikes me as somewhat hypocritical.

Tuesday: Have to go over more data from my previous experiment, trying to find a significant pattern in disappointing data. Before starting my PhD in Behavioural Neuroscience, I had never come across SPSS, and I sometimes long for those days of carefree optimism. For those unfamiliar with the statistics package SPSS, it reminds me of the NHS; we’d be lost without it, but that doesn’t mean we don’t hate it.

That evening I host the regular Student Union comedy night. I mention my comparisons between SPSS and the NHS. Unfortunately, the 30 or so Art and History students in the front don’t know what I’m talking about and assume that SPSS is something to do with the police. Comparing one government institution with another really doesn’t have the same impact, but my wife later points out that the original joke wasn’t funny either, so no real loss there.

Wednesday: Surgery day. It’s an unfortunate aspect of modern science that animal experimentation is still necessary, and that a study of the function of specific brain regions requires lesioning or physical disruption. I’ve had to point out to many anti-vivisectionist ‘friends’ that just because scientists do it, it doesn’t mean we enjoy it in any way, despite their angry implications. This is true, as performing a neuroanatomical lesion with any degree of accuracy takes several hours of concentration at a time. If nothing else, it’s boring. This revelation makes me chuckle, but I decide I really shouldn’t mention it if I’m ever asked to write a magazine article.

No comedy tonight, but I run some new material past my wife. The look she gives me is similar to the one I give a rat that urinates on my sleeve.

Thursday: Receive several replies to job applications for a post-PhD position, all rejections. One rejection is from a job I never applied for, which is does damage the motivation somewhat. After much deliberation, I decide to remove the ‘comedian’ section of my CV. Just doesn’t look right on an academic application. Spend another 8 hours performing brain lesions. My careers advisor told me I’d ‘never be a brain surgeon’. She was half right, I guess.

In the evening, I fill in for a last minute drop out at a lovely gig I know. A French woman in the front row looks confused, so I convert all my jokes to metric and she starts laughing. I mention how nonsensical the excuse ‘Big bones’ is for being overweight. A woman laughs and explains she used to be big boned. Reflexively, I ask how long she spent on the International Space Station, then have to spend 5 minutes explaining how prolonged periods of low gravity can lead to bone loss due to calcium depletion. Make a note; it’s important to know your audience, and the people of Abergavenny aren’t really up to speed on the effects of prolonged microgravity on human skeletal structure.

Friday: Today is important, it’s my first ever attempt at a science-themed comedy night. “Humourology”, as I’ve dubbed it (an off the cuff suggestion I don’t like but which seems to have stuck), is a night of as many comics as I can find performing material based on and with reference to complex science, hosted by myself. I manage to focus on my work, but am also illicitly using the photocopier for flyers, which I hope nobody discovers. By the time the show starts, there are over a hundred people in attendance. Science comedy is clearly an untapped niche. The whole thing goes incredibly well, particularly my analysis on the scientific inaccuracies of classical jokes. The night wraps up around 11. After promising to do more Humourology in the near future, I go home and pass out, dreaming of the stardom that is surely to come my way after the success of tonight.

Saturday: Have to go into the lab to start a test session. Luckily, spending several hours staring at rats in a box undermines my delusions of grandeur.

Sunday: Same as Saturday, but with a later start as I forget my lab access card.


dave_hullo said...

At no point do you mention screaming kazoo noises while your wife discusses the comparisons between supposed meritocracies and modern day democracies. Grossly inaccurate.

Paul Blanchard said...

"Obviously, before anyone points it out, the week detailed never happened for real"
I was depressed at you interesting your weeks seemed until I noticed this...

Nice blog, as they say...

You Took That Well said...

You mean, Dean, that you actually do neuroscience?

Dean Burnett, Neuroscientist said...

Well, yes. Would be quite an extravagant claim if I didn't.

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