Scientists looking to improve their sterile technique would be wise to study the precepts of Japanese tea ceremony.
Tissue (cell) culture is one of the bedrock techniques of molecular bioscience. But whether it’s animal, plant or microbial cells or tissues you’re culturing, the general principles and the general risks remain the same.
Top amongst these is the risk of contamination. That can be contamination of yourself by the culture you’re working on (relevant for the scientists out there dealing with pathogens), contamination of the culture by yourself or the environment (all those microbes present on your skin and in the air), or contamination of one of your cultures by another one (which ruins and confuses your experiments).
Consequently, much of the protocol for working inside a sterile cell culture (laminar flow) hood is basically ergonomics. It’s about avoiding knocking things over, avoiding passing your hand over open flasks, avoiding cluttering the workspace, and ensuring above all that your movements are measured, deliberate, and controlled.
It’s here that science can learn much from Japanese tea ceremony. The elaborate ritual, focused attention, and precision of a Japanese tea ceremony are hypnotic on a first viewing. The effect, both intended and actual, is one of peaceful contemplation – but the purposeful economy of motion is not just about creating an atmosphere. As the 19th century Japanese writer Nitobe Inazō, author of the classic Bushido: The Soul of Japan, explains:
“…[I do not] consider elaborate ceremony as altogether trivial; for it denotes the result of long observation as to the most appropriate method of achieving a certain result. If there is anything to do, there is certainly a best way to do it, and the best way is both the most economical and the most graceful. Mr Spencer defines grace as the most economical manner of motion. The tea ceremony present certain definite ways of manipulating a bowl, a spoon, a napkin, etc. To a novice it looks tedious. But one soon discovers that the way prescribed is, after all, the most saving of time and labour; in other words, the most economical use of force – hence, according to Spencer’s dictum, the most graceful.”
“…If the promise is true that gracefulness means economy of force, then it follows as a logical sequence that a constant practice of graceful deportment must bring with it a reserve and storage of force. Fine manners, therefore, mean power in repose.”
There’s a general truth here that’s noteworthy for actors, dancers, or really anyone involved in a manual task. If our movements are economical, they will automatically be graceful.* And if they are economical, that means both that we retain energy for later use and that we have structured our environment in a way that facilitates that economy of movement. Both are critically important for cell culture – if you’re spending two or more hours in a cell culture hood, ensuring that you do not become fatigued is essential to avoiding mistakes later on. Similarly, arranging your workspace in a way that facilitates simple and direct movements both increases your efficiency and your competence.
So if you are about to begin training in cell culture, why not take a moment to watch a tea ceremony online first?
*As both an example and an aside, look at Darth Maul (Ray Parks) when he’s fighting Qui-Gon Jinn in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.