Florian Engert makes a mid-afternoon espresso at his beloved machine.
Florian Engert makes a mid-afternoon espresso at his beloved machine.

Lab Culture: Glowing Fish Brains, Cartoons, and Espresso in the Engert Lab

I visit a lot of molecular biology labs, and most of them look pretty much identical: lab benches, microscopes, computers, messy break rooms, big filing cabinets crammed into every free corner. When you look closely, though, every lab has its own flavor, its own culture. This is the first post of what I hope will be a fun, photo-heavy series on the culture of different labs.

Florian Engert’s lab at Harvard is large, colorful, and messy. I arrived around noon on a Monday. Several grad students and post-docs were sitting at a long table in the kitchen/break room, eating lunch from tupperware containers and chatting about the technical limitations (spin states, nanodiamonds) of using magnetic fields to image neural networks. There were lots of strange objects surrounding them — a leather whip sat in the middle of the table; somebody told me why but I did not understand and did not follow up — but the most prominent was a fire-engine red La Pavoni commercial model espresso machine. Later Engert told me the story behind this gleaming machine, which I’m sharing here because I think it captures the spirit of his lab.

After Engert got tenure, in 2009, he completed a major, multi-million dollar renovation of his lab. This was around the same time that Harvard’s endowment had been slashed due to bad investments. All of the high-level administrators were tightening their belts. “People panicked. There was really a sense of doomsday,” Engert recalls. “They were firing people left and right. They even stopped paying for Friday beer and pizza hours.”

One day shortly after the renovation, a big-deal dean (Engert’s boss’s boss, essentially) walked by the lab and saw the red espresso machine. (How could he not, really.) “He really lost it,” Engert says. Well, Engert heard that the dean lost it, anyway. “I was on skiing holiday at the time, which didn’t help.”

The dean assumed, correctly, that Engert had bought the $5,000+ machine with Harvard money. The dean demanded that Engert get rid of the frivolous expenditure. That never happened. The machine had been a line item on Engert’s official, approved budget, hidden between $100,000 microscopes.

Engert says the machine’s expense is completely justified. “It keeps people in the lab, it keeps them happy, it keeps them caffeinated,” he says. “People don’t go out to have coffees now but actually come to my lab, so it enhances cooperations and collaborations.”

Regardless of whether the machine fosters productivity, the story reveals Engert’s infamous penchant for risk and rebellion. Sometimes it leads to scientific pay-offs, as I wrote about in Nature this week. Check out the video below to learn more about one of Engert’s projects, in which he puts zebrafish into virtual reality.