Dressing for Battlefield Science
Fashion & being yourself while complying with laboratory safety
My first three years of grad school blur together as a haze of experiments and little else. Doing laundry every other week marked the passage of time. I would wash the same set of Gap Body shirts in every neutral color along with my three identical pairs of NYDJ jeans. At some point, I realized I was sick to death of wearing exactly the same thing everyday. I resented that science prevented me from enjoying all my favorite clothes: black pleated wool shorts, a big chunky sweater with bright orange shoulders and big sleeves, a flowy bright yellow camisole, all of my crop tops, all of my skirts – none of them were compatible with laboratory safety guidelines or the practical rigors of experimental science.
Experimental science can demand a remarkable amount from you physically. I routinely find myself climbing on or crawling under things in order to plug something in to an unfortunately-placed extension cord. I spend hours setting up equipment in the 100०F warm room and find myself drenched in so much sweat that, when I take my gloves off, I find that all my fingers have wrinkled up. When I’m rummaging around looking for a sample that has been misplaced amongst the sea of boxes in the 40०F cold room, I know it’s my cue to give up and leave when I start shivering. When a tube rolls under a freezer, I attempt to coax it out with a broom handle and get covered in extra-gross bio lab dust bunnies. Once, I tried to deadlift a 45-pound carboy of sterile water out of the sink and sloshed water all over myself. Every now and then, a filter breaks, spewing droplets of viruses all over me. I’m diligent about wearing fully-buttoned lab coats and eye protection when I sterilize things with 10% bleach so that, if I fumble a glass bottle, the resulting splash doesn’t bleach my clothes or my eyes.
I spent a lot of time setting up tubing in the warm room.
It’s a pity that the physicality science demands of me doesn’t include the ability to do pullups and have washboard abs, because if it did, I would be winning bodybuilding competitions. As it stands, I’ve become heat- and cold-resistant and can come into uncomfortably close proximity with all sorts of questionable liquids without batting an eye. All of this perhaps prepares me well for motherhood but places strong constraints on what clothes I can wear to work. Practically speaking, the clothes must allow me climb, crawl, avoid accidentally knocking things over, and they need to be machine-washable.
Even aside from practicalities, official laboratory safety guidelines can constrain what you can wear. These rules are written by the people who have actually seen all the worst-case-scenarios, and you shouldn’t ignore them! In many labs, you should wear clothes that cover your skin toe-to-waist so that, if you spill chemicals on yourself, it hits something other than your skin. No drape-y sleeves: you might knock something over by accident. No loose hair: you risk being scalped. No synthetic materials: if they catch fire, they will melt and stick to your skin. No sandals: closed-toe shoes only. Everything has to layer under a lab coat, or, if you work in a clean room, a bunny suit. If you work in an animal facility, no perfume and a hair net. The list goes on.
Between complying with official safety guidelines and the practical realities of doing lab work, it becomes very difficult to assemble any outfit that doesn’t make me feel frumpy and boring.
That said, there are ways to escape the monotony of wearing the same jeans-and-a-T-shirt outfit to lab every day. In general, functional clothing is limited in terms of the cut and type of fabric, but within those constraints you can play with colors and patterns. Bright green jeans are just as functional as blue jeans, but more fun! Layering is also a good idea, especially during the Boston winter. Hats, scarves, sweaters, and jackets can all be colorful and fun, as well as useful: I keep a cropped sweater in lab that helps me manage the warm room/cold room divide. Belts and boots can also fall in the useful-and-fashionable category. And finally, there will inevitably be days when you’re not doing experiments, and those are opportunities to wear something – anything – totally different.
For me, figuring out what to wear was part of finding balance and staying a happy, thriving person, not just a lab zombie. Thinking through all the things I do in these clothes has helped me feel proud that I’m battlefield-ready, rather than resentful that I’m not wearing a pencil skirt. And I’ve found creative ways to have fun with my clothes. Today, I wore fold-over boots with teal lining, which just so happens to exactly match my favorite brand of teal latex gloves.
P.S. For more about dressing for battlefield science, see Erika’s instagram @erika.alden.
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