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A pod of botanists, an affinity of pharmacologists, an aggregate of structural biologists? No, the collective noun is ‘department’

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When you see a number of geese together you know that the collective noun is a ‘gaggle’; or when you look into the ocean and see fish swimming together you know that the collective noun is a ‘shoal’. But is the collective noun for a group of botanists a ‘pod’, or molecular biologists a ‘clone’ (two molecular biologists would, of course, be a ‘sub-clone’), or biochemists a ‘reaction’, or structural biologists an ‘aggregate’ (the very best, however, would be referred to as a ‘lattice’), or pharmacologists an ‘affinity’, or zoologists a ‘cage’? While these are interesting possibilities, and I could go on (a ‘network’ of neurobiologists, an ‘infection’ of virologists, a ‘plaque’ of bacteriologists?), the traditional collective noun for all groupings of scientists is ‘department’.

Attempts have been made to specify ‘department’ for use as a collective noun for unique groupings of scientists by adding a simple descriptor - for example, Department of Biochemistry, Department of Genetics, or Department of Developmental Biology. Alternatively, the collective noun has been sub-specialized - for example, Department of Molecular Pharmacology. Or, an amalgam of collective nouns has been used - for example, Department of Cell Biology and Anatomy.

The reason that these corruptions of ‘department’ do not work as collective nouns for specific scientists is that the groupings do not reflect the types of scientist in them. For example, Departments of Biochemistry are full of molecular biologists, developmental biologists, cell biologists - you name the speciality, and there is probably a Department of Biochemistry somewhere that has one - oh, and biochemists. When did you hear of a brood of hens containing a stray wildebeest, or a flock of starlings that contained a formation (a ‘squadron’?), of flying pigs?

When ‘department’ is further sub-specialized (Molecular Pharmacology), there is really no real change in the motley grouping of scientists that make up the ‘department’. They did not suddenly add a ‘sub-clone’ of molecular biologists. Rather it is an attempt to make the old (Pharmacology) sound more modern (Molecular).

Similarly, an amalgam of collective names (Cell Biology and Anatomy) does not necessarily reflect the inclusion of cell biologists into the old collective, but rather the attempt to make the old, original department (Anatomy) more attractive to students (Cell Biology?). In addition, other amalgams (Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology) reflect the absorption of previous departments into a single collective (why not just call it ‘The Department’ when no other sub-departments remain?).

It is the very fact that each ‘department’ comprises a group of scientists with broad and diverse interests that defies their collection under a more specialized noun. It is also what makes the ‘department’ so important as a collective. In the end, it is the scientists in the ‘department’ who define the style, teaching, training and research directions of the ‘department’ - not the (sub)name per se. As a cell biologist working on the actin cytoskeleton, would you benefit most by being surrounded by a group of other cell biologists working on the actin cytoskeleton or by a broad group of scientists that included molecular biologists, developmental biologists and biochemists? The answer depends a great deal on how parochial you are in terms of scientific interests and whether you need a security blanket around you of scientists who think like you, and identify with the same problems and research interests as you, whether you enjoy being stimulated by a smörgåsbord of science that, if you are lucky, will impact on the way that you think about your own work and move it in diverse directions, and on whether you like being challenged to convince scientists in very different research areas that your science is important and interesting. Personally, I like the presence of a diverse group of scientists around me that is summed up as a ‘department’ of scientists.

Despite my reluctance to use a collective noun other than ‘department’ for scientists, the following sound not only useful but also rather intriguing: a ‘clone of pods’ (molecular botanists), a ‘cage of infections’ (animal virologists), a ‘reaction of plaques’ (biochemical bacteriologists) and an ‘affinity network’ (pharmaco-neurobiologists). By the way, I have from time-to-time belonged to a correlate, a reaction, an aggregate and a hereditary of scientists.