The art of research

Noam Shomron includes antiques and his own paintings of wildlife in the decor for his genomics lab.
Virginia Gewin is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.

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Noam Shomron in his lab office, with his paintings and camera collection near his desk

Noam Shomron, a genomics researcher at Tel Aviv University in Israel, pays particular attention to his lab’s decor. Credit: Corinna Kern for Nature

In my genomics lab, I’ve posted nine life-sized paintings that I did of zebras, tigers and penguins, among other images. I’ve also sprinkled around some pieces of antique scientific equipment, such as a Soviet Union-era manual centrifuge and salvaged microscopes from a bygone time.

I specifically and intentionally selected every detail of the lab’s decor. I chose animals as the theme because they provide a universal connection. One day a person can feel like a tiger, and another day more like a puppy dog. And, when someone is repeating experiments over and over, I think they can identify with a parrot. I drew a penguin when someone had to work in the cold room all day to keep proteins stable.

I have more paintings than wall space, so sometimes I switch some out to see who is paying attention. I hope they help to create a welcoming environment for lab members who are largely local and from diverse religious backgrounds, who include Jews, Muslims and Christians. And international colleagues also come for short stays.

I study the roles of RNA and DNA in human diseases, including in mental disorders and breast cancer. But the antique equipment reminds us that we have much to learn from yesterday’s scientists. There is such a rush to publish new findings, but if people conduct a detailed literature search, they are likely to find that a similar experiment has already been run. Life is so fast these days, I want my students to stop and think about the proper way to conduct science rather than simply try to speed through experiments as fast as they can.

I’ve worked in labs that had a cold, sterile appearance. I didn’t want that for mine. It must be a place of comfort — physically as well as mentally. I want my students to love entering a space in which they are motivated to do their best work and where they feel supported. My door is always open. I bring cookies or chocolate into a corner of my office, so that people will stop by and I can ask them how they are.

Nature 575, 408 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-03460-0

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