Closing time

It’s now only a couple of weeks until my lab moves from our building in Mill Hill to the new Crick Institute on Midland Road. Over the last 4-5 months almost all of my colleagues have completed their moves and my group is left almost alone in the old NIMR building. The corridors, that were once full of people from early in the morning until late at night, feel cold and bare; at lunchtimes there’s just a handful of people in the canteen; and labs that used to be full of equipment are empty and deserted. Most significantly, the staff bar (fondly remembered by several generations of Mill Hill scientists) is no longer open. In many ways, being in the institute as it has emptied out and closed down will make leaving easier. There are few things more melancholy then watching the slow demise of a once bustling building and with this happening as autumn sets in and winter approaches it only accentuates the sense of an end of era.

South from the roof of NIMR

The last few weeks have trigger some bouts of nostalgia and reminiscences. There are many things I will miss about Mill Hill. Looking out of the windows of my lab (on the top floor of the institute) we have spectacular views across North London. Looking South you can see the City and Canary Wharf. In recent years the Shard and the Walkie Talkie tower have become new features on the skyline. In the other direction, looking West, there is Wembley and in the far distance Heathrow. Our position, perched high on a hill, makes it one of the best spots in London to see fireworks. On Bonfire night we could climb out the windows to stand on the roof (which we would never do of course, since it was against safety rules) and see a panorama of half-a-dozen displays spread out before us, from the large professional one at Alexander Palace to the back garden and local sports club variety.

But what I remember most is the people that have been through the lab. There’s a well-known quote that you can never step in same river twice. Research labs definitely exemplify this. Students, post-docs, and often times research assistants too, come and go, only staying for a few years before moving on. If I think about the current members of my group, all have been in my lab less than 5 years and most have only 1 or 2 years experience of Mill Hill. As people leave the lab to further their careers, new members join. This means the lab is always in a dynamic equilibrium of constantly changing people, a situation that seems entirely fitting for a group studying biology. The continually varying makeup of labs has a significant effect on the culture of the work environment. Friends of mine who have successful careers in more conventional organisations get promoted into increasingly senior positions. On a day-to-day basis they mostly interact with people in the layers of organisation just above and below them in seniority. More often than not these people are of fairly similar ages and experience and increase as their careers progress. By contrast in a research lab, although I get older, most of the people in my group remain in their 20s and 30s. It makes for a refreshing and lively experience but I do wonder whether it puts me at risk of Peter Pan Syndrome, never really growing up.

A satisfying consequence of the constant turnover of people in the lab is that there is a diaspora of past lab-members spread across the world. From Japan to America, in faculty positions, post-docs or other professions ranging from journal editor to tech transfer manager there’s a growing number of people that have passed through the lab. Although I see and communicate regularly with many of them, my memories of most remain associated with Mill Hill and their time in the lab. I can recall specific discussions or particularly important lab meetings and I often think of a certain bench or desk as belonging to a certain person for a long time after they’ve left and someone new is occupying it. Our move out of Mill Hill will break these links and it will be a sad day for me when I finally leave. As Peter Pan said, “Never say goodbye because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting.”


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