The other day, while surfing the web, my better half came upon this semi-official looking symbol for psychohazards:
The verbiage underneath the symbol seem to indicate conditions that might have serious consequences for one’s picture of the world and its contents, or for one’s ability to come to knowledge about the world. A philosopher who was so inclined could go to town on this.
However, while this particular icon was new to me, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen the term “psychohazard” in use.
A long time ago, I was an undergraduate with an internship working in a cancer pharmacology lab. My own piece of the research was restricted to tissue culture work — growing cells in medium in culture flasks, treating the cells with the compounds whose anticancer properties we were exploring, growing them in conditions where they had oxygen or didn’t have oxygen, exposing some of them to varying amounts of radiation, plating different cell dilutions in culture dishes, then seeing how they grew (or didn’t) after al this treatment by staining the culture dishes and counting the colonies.
There were plenty of ways to mess up, so much of my lab-related stress came from trying to perfect my sterile technique in various ways. Truth be told, I had my share of nights where I dreamt only of pipetting media and cells into the stacks and stacks of culture dishes. Those were not dreams that left me feeling well-rested and energized for another day in the lab.
There was other research going on in the lab, though, that I was around to see, if not participate in. Some of it was in vivo work, to see how the compounds that performed well when tested on cultured tissue cells would work in treating actual tumors growing in mice, not culture flasks. These pieces of the work were pretty important, given that tumor cells in a culture and tumor cells in a tumor can behave in interestingly different ways, not to mention the fact that there’s more going on when a drug is introduced to a whole living organism than when it’s introduced to cells growing in growth medium. The cell culture work is informative, but it doesn’t give you all the information you need to be able to treat the whole living organism with the cancerous cells in it.
The mice that were used in the in vivo research were treated very humanely, with great care taken to ensure that they felt no pain on “tissue harvest day”. They were also monitored prior to tissue harvest day to make sure that they weren’t experiencing pain or distress from their tumors or from the experimental drugs being administered to them, and they had enrichment to make sure that they weren’t bored. But since I was working on cells in dishes, I only saw the mice on tissue culture day.
The lab members who did the tissue harvest and euthanized the mice afterwards were very skilled. They worked very hard to make sure the tissue samples they collected would yield usable data, and they were very attentive to the state of the mice in the process. One effect of this was that “tissue harvest day” was very draining, emotionally as well as physically. Recognizing this, the tissue harvest teams would sometimes take a Sharpie to the red biohazardous waste disposal bags which would, by the end of the harvest, contain the bodies of the euthanized mice, adding something like this:
It looks like a lighthearted doodle, but it was not prompted by anything that felt lighthearted.
The sense I got as a bystander to these procedures is that it was important for the researchers to recognize the stress this aspect of the research put on them. As much as they did to make sure that the animals being used were free of pain and distress, they needed to acknowledge their own distress and do what they could do minimize it.
Mainly, the strategy to minimize researcher distress seemed to be to make sure the in vivo experimentation was done impeccably so that lots of good data could be obtained from the minimum number of mice (thus reducing the total number of tissue harvest days), and to take really good care of the animals. None of the researchers on the team gave any of the others a hard time for feeling drained at the end of the procedure. None of them seemed to feel shy about acknowledging to others in the group that euthanizing the mice left them feeling wrung out.
Yet, to a person, each of these people understood that answering the biomedical questions the lab was ultimately interested in getting to the bottom of — what compounds could offer effective treatments for cancers in humans — the in vivo studies were absolutely essential. Studying the effects of the the compounds on cancer cells growing in culture dishes told us something useful, but it wasn’t enough. Thus, in some ways, dealing with the emotional burden of tissue harvest day was a way these scientists took one for the team, not just doing intellectual labor but bearing emotional costs to help medical science find good ways to alleviate human suffering.
I’m not sure how many of the people who benefit from biomedical advances recognize this part of what researchers contribute.