8 Everyday Words That Mean Something Different To Scientists

As a scientist, you wouldn’t want to be eating the kinds of sandwiches you find in the lab!

AsianScientist (Aug. 15, 2016) – Being a scientist changes you. I’m sure you’ve noticed it by now. Compared to the day you first embarked on your PhD, you need less sleep; you have a warped sense of humor; you aren’t squeamish around rodents; and you can rattle off multi-syllabic words without batting an eyelid (think Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory).

You also start to read, say and hear things differently. Simple words used in everyday conversation begin to take on a dual nature, just like Jekyll and Hyde if they were made from letters of the English alphabet.

So, it comes as no surprise that the vocabulary of a scientist is stranger than that of the average person. Some might say that inventing terminology is the defining trait of our profession.

Anyway, the next time you find yourself drawing a strange stare when you utter sentences like “I threw away my culture as it was contaminated,” wither not under that judgmental gaze. You speak geek and you should be proud of it.

Here’s a list of eight everyday words that take on a different meaning to scientists:

  1. Culture

    When non-scientists speak of Asia as a region of diverse cultures, they probably aren’t implying that she has a rich microbial diversity, though they might be surprised at how scientifically accurate that statement really is.

    Neither do they think of a single cell, the basic unit of all living organisms, as having culture. Imagine a liver cell sipping on a glass of red wine and exclaiming “C’est la vie!” Ridiculous!

    Yet, ‘bacteria culture’ and ‘cell culture’ are phrases that scientists frequently use. The verb form of ‘culture’ is applied here, meaning ‘to cultivate’ or ‘to grow.’

    Offend a scientist and you might earn a remark that the only culture you have is your microbiome, the community of microorganisms that live in and on you.


  2. Medium

    This could be the size of your pants or it could refer to someone who communicates with spiritual beings.

    In the lab, however, medium refers to the nutrient-rich liquid in which we culture cells.


  3. Sandwich

    You might have this for lunch, but in the lab, a sandwich is hardly edible. The concept remains the same, but instead of packing ham, tomato slices and lettuce between pieces of bread, scientists sandwich gels between membranes and filter paper and then apply an electric current, so that biological molecules move between the layers.

    It’s more electrifying than your average toast, don’t you think?


  4. Fish

    Non-scientists know this either as an organism they might have for dinner, or an activity they might engage in to catch that organism for said dinner.

    For us scientists, the word ‘fish’ could refer to the zebrafish which we use as animal models in our experiments. More exotically, FISH is an acronym for fluorescence in situ hybridization, a tool biologists use to investigate RNA.


  5. Chip

    Pining for a late night snack? Potato chips might come to mind. In the lab, however, chips are devices that have a multitude of research applications.

    ChIP is also an acronym for chromatin immuno-precipitation, a method for studying gene regulation. Fancy chipping away at a scientific problem? Your potato chip probably won’t help.


  6. Digest

    The only digestion most people have done in their lives is of the food they’ve eaten.

    In the lab, digestion of a different sort takes place. Most commonly, DNA sequences are digested by restriction enzymes, like ribbons cut by scissors wielded by an obsessively precise seamstress.

    The acronyms and abbreviations of the restriction enzymes are especially amusing when (in)appropriately punctuated or emphasized. Say aloud “Bam!,” “Pst!,” “Hae!” and “Alu?” the next time you’re carrying out a restriction digest.


  7. Elisa

    What, a pretty name? No! In geek speak, ELISA stands for enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. Simply put, it’s a method that scientists employ to measure the amount of a specific protein in a complex sample. A variant of this lab technique is actually called the sandwich ELISA.

    In some places, ELISA is also slang for “I need a multi-channel pipette!”


  8. Car

    At this point you might have guessed that ‘car’ doesn’t actually mean your regular mode of transport. You’d be right!

    When a biologist speaks of a CAR, it is likely in reference to something called a chimeric antigen receptor, which is a protein engineered into an immune cell, enabling it to seek and destroy cancer cells. Sometimes, another act of genetic tinkering is performed to make the immune cell even more potent in its anticancer function.

    Guess what these cells are called? Drumroll… armored CARs!



If you made it this far and can appreciate all eight words for their scientific alter-egos, give yourself a pat on the back. Do you feel the fabric there? It’s scientist material. *ba dum tss*


This article is from a monthly column called Hacking a PhD. Click here to see the other articles in this series.

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Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Steven Grovers/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Jeremy received his PhD from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, where he studied the role of the tumor microenvironment in cancer progression.

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