Nature

Southpaw scientists need a helping (left) hand

Researcher in a lab coat and gloves uses a microscope. The picture has a green tint on the left and a red tint on the right.

Credit: Adapted from Getty

Like many graduate students around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic forced me to stay at home and analyse data instead of working in the laboratory.

To take a break from the mind-numbing data mining and to remind myself of the good old days of lab work, I started to watch some old videos of my experimental work, and noticed that a big part of my struggles in the lab was due to the design of the equipment — which didn’t consider left-handed scientists like me.

For example, I work in a lab that studies muscle, ranging from whole human skeletal muscles down to single muscle fibres and their architecture and function. To measure the mechanical properties of individual fibres, we use a specialized microscope, with a device that measures force on the right-hand side and a bulky length controller on the left. We stretch or shorten the fibre and watch in the microscope how it responds.

The positioning of these devices is entirely based on the assumption that the user is right-handed. The first time I needed to use this microscope, it was embarrassingly difficult to get the hang of things, as my dominant, dexterous left hand was stuck operating the bulky controller, whereas my right had to do all the fine, careful work. I had to adjust mentally to accommodate my difference.

Also, each fibre needs to be attached to the device with little ‘sutures’ that we tie off at each end. Learning to make those sutures and teaching others how to do it is difficult, because I have to reverse everything I would normally do. Not only was I trained by a right-handed colleague, but I also have to train other right-handers, causing pain and stiffness in my left wrist.

These techniques are difficult for all new trainees, regardless of handedness. But being left-handed created extra complications and it took me longer than my right-handed colleagues to master the microscope and its attachments. About 15% of people are left-handed: surely that’s a sizeable enough minority to consider making changes? And surely there is a technological solution to this problem?

I understand that, in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement and with the coronavirus pandemic still looming large, there are other minority groups and other issues that require more immediate and focused attention. It might seem unreasonable to ask companies to manufacture a whole new set of equipment just for left-handed users, but maybe scientific-equipment manufacturers could simply consider swappable components that all of us could use?

I’ve not come across any discussion about how many additional hours a left-handed scientist needs to learn the same techniques as a right-handed colleague, but I’m keen to hear examples of similar challenges faced by left-handed researchers.

Science is already competitive, and the challenges that left-handed researchers face are often dismissed. But history gives me hope. Despite my disadvantage in the lab, I have many role models to draw on: Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Alan Turing were all left-handed.

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