Happy Scienceoween!


A few years ago, the biotech company where I work announced a Halloween costume contest. I think it might have been the first time we’d had one, and the proclamation wasn’t exactly met with enthusiasm.

After all, a workplace costume contest is a dicey affair. You spend most days convincing your co-workers that you’re a serious colleague, then—1 day a year—hey! Look at me! I’m a sexy cat!

But a costume contest at a science workplace is particularly fraught. It may sound innocuous and fun, but your colleagues and superiors are assessing the cleverness of your costume as a proxy for your general ingenuity—or, at least, you fear that they are.

My co-workers and I carefully considered what the ideal costume could be. It had to be something nerdy, something dignified yet whimsical, something germane to our research. It had to belie enough effort to not look half-assed, but not so much effort as to raise suspicions of neglected lab work.

In retrospect, the result was obvious: Almost no one wore a costume.

It was also the only year that I did wear a costume to work, because for once I actually had an idea. I decided to dress as something I use every day, something everyone at my company—but no one outside my company—would recognize. I wore a white shirt, and around my neck hung a giant piece of posterboard on which I’d meticulously drawn my costume.

Working in industry is so exciting.

Somehow my costume fulfilled the ideal middle ground of specificity, ingenuity, and effort—and I’m unnecessarily proud to announce that I took home the coveted $25 Visa gift card.

Yes, scientists have the traditional Halloween, the one with candy and costumes and friends who ask us to steal dry ice from the lab to put into punch bowls. But we also have a kind of Scientist Halloween, an extension of the original holiday with additional expectations for inventiveness. Think of the smartest, wittiest scientist you know. Now imagine that person showing up at a Halloween party dressed as a pirate. No pun, no nerdy reference, no double entendre, just … a pirate. How disappointed are you?

It may be too late for this year—but it’s never too early to start thinking about next year. For a costume that will impress your co-workers and confuse your children, consider the following suggestions:

Some extremely geeky reference. The fewer people who understand your costume, the better. Ideally, they should squint at what you’ve created, read the formulae printed on your sleeves, and consult the appropriate reference books before conceding their bafflement. Then you can look at them like they’re crazy and explain, “I’m the psychological effects of Robert Millikan and Harvey Fletcher’s 1909 oil drop experiment that quantified the elementary electric charge as pointed out by Richard Feynman in his 1974 Caltech commencement address! Duh!”

Model organism. Scientists use model organisms as analogs for human genetics, anatomy, and development, but they’re most useful as awesome Halloween costumes: Drosophila, zebrafish, yeast, C. elegans, even—as one reader shared with me—Mouse C57BL/6. Just remember, pretending to be a model organism is fun—until you’re sacrificed and dissected, and have your organs sectioned.

Famous scientist. This is your opportunity to pay tribute to your favorite scientific luminary—preferably someone very few people have heard of so that you can force your friends to listen to a lecture on why Esther Lederberg is an unmatched pioneer of bacterial genetics. Or just do what everyone else is doing and go as Erwin Schrödinger so that you can carry around a shoebox and have a few nonscientists understand your costume. (Of course, if they don’t see your costume, then they both understand it and don’t understand it at the same time. Everyone likes Schrödinger jokes. And they also don’t.)

Hollow-eyed zombie lurching through hallways in a dazed stupor. See “Postdoc.”

Something interactive. Once, when I was a kid, I dressed as a robot for Halloween. I covered a cardboard box in aluminum foil and rigged up dials and controls, including a row of tiny light bulbs that I could control from inside the box. I felt like a real engineer. But when I started trick-or-treating, I realized that operating the controls required my arms to be inside the box—so I couldn’t hold a bag of candy. My design looked good on paper but was impractical and intrinsically flawed. I felt like a real engineer.

Science group costume. Each person is an atom, and together you form a molecule! Each person is a planet, and together you form the solar system! Each person is a character from Voltron, and together you form a big group of nerds!

Co-worker or employer. When I was in grad school, all the members of two different labs each dressed as their principal investigator (PI) one Halloween. Both PIs were notorious for their distinctive wardrobes—one always wore a blue Oxford shirt and khakis, and the other always wore an unbuttoned flannel with a T-shirt, jeans, and Chuck Taylor sneakers. Dressing as a colleague is the perfect cross between flattery and saying, “What you regard as standard is something the rest of us consider a punchline.”

Something scaaaaaary. Ghosts and vampires may be spooky, but not science-spooky. Instead, frighten your colleagues by dressing as a Disgruntled PI, an Unscheduled Safety Auditor, or—the creepiest creature of all—the terrifying Distracted Grant Reviewer!

Mad scientist. I have to put this on the list, but only to point out that no real scientist ever dresses themselves or their children as a mad scientist. This costume is reserved for people who don’t know any actual scientists and assume we must all be tweaked-out lunatics. As actual scientists who perform science in a professional capacity on a daily basis, we know we’re all tweaked-out lunatics.

If all else fails, steal another scientist’s idea. Normally this would be an ethical breach, but Science-o-ween has its own rules. Find a clever costume on Google and copy it. 

Just don’t dress up as “Label Distribution Form F717-2.” That one’s taken.

In my postPhD career, I’m putting my grad school angst to good use

Semiretirement is treating me well—and it made room for a younger scientist