The Personal Blog of Stephen Sekula

Lab Lights, Late at Night

What seems like a very long time ago, my family took a vacation. Vacations were a near rarity in my family – by which I mean the kind of textbook, campy Americana vacation depicted in movies. We spent lots of time at the beach, and plenty of time just hanging out at home. Very occasionally, we got in the car and headed to some far destination. Benson’s animal farm, for instance, or a memorable trip to Boston. It’s that Boston trip that is one of my bedrock memories, something that I believe was instrumental in turning me to science.

I recall the day that mom and dad took my sister and me to Boston College, my father’s graduate school and the place where I was basically born. We were touring the campus on foot, and dad wanted to go past the Chemistry department where he earned his Master’s degree. Something he told me that day has stuck with me since, and to this day still fills me with a sense of youth and innocence whenever I find myself at a college campus or a laboratory late at night.

He told me that at night, you could walk past the Chemisty department and see lights on here and there. “Those lights,” he said, “are students working late into the night on their research.” The way he said it, with awe, reverence, and a bit of longing, echoes inside me to this day. Whenever I find myself coming out of my office building after dark, or if I grab a coffee down at Stanford, I always look at the buildings. When I see lights on, I know something that a lot of other people probably just brush aside. Those lights are signs of genius, a genius struggling to be born in the heart and the mind of a young academic. Those lights are the only visible sign of that spark of dedication. Those lights always fill me with elation. It’s like watching a beautiful child be born, again and again, when I step outside at night and see those lights.