The Scientist’s Holiday Shopping Guide (Soon to be) Endorsed by the NIH

Gift GuideHere at BenchFly, we understand the holidays represent a serious challenge to scientists.  To help, we’ve put together a Holiday gift guide to protect your time, reputation and wallet. To ensure there’s no misunderstanding, we’re putting it into the universal language- an NIH grant…



Aim 1: Determine who we care about most. Holiday shopping can be overwhelming, in part because it involves choices that are unpleasant to make.  For those who have gone through the wedding planning process, you know the pain.  The idea of labeling people “A-,” “B-” or “C-” team friends is not pleasant.  But it does serve a purpose.  Whittling down the Holiday list is imperative.  A method for creating a “gift-list” will be developed and shared.

Aim 2: Glance at a balance statement. The most difficult of the four aims, Aim 2 directly affects the success of the project.  Typically, the balance is intentionally avoided on ATM receipts by immediately crumpling and disposing of the statement.  To address this problem, prior to elimination of the next receipt, we will slowly open our hand, revealing the partially crushed paper.  A quick glance will be shot through the grimaced face in order to confidently assess the number of digits to the left of the decimal.  We’re pulling for three.

Aim 3: Elucidate a new mechanism for giving. With every passing year, the number of presents available to give to an individual decreases by two – assuming a birthday and holiday present was given the previous year.  Although the number of presents available to give will increase due to new product releases, it will be partially offset by the number of those products the individual already purchased for themselves.  The complexity of gift selection would make a Field’s Medal winner blush.  Accordingly, simple new mechanisms for giving to each individual will be presented in order to reduce the high degree of uncertainty associated with this Aim.

Aim 4: Obtain or synthesize specific gift reagents. Ultimately, the gift-giving strategies will be tested in this aim.  Candidate gifts will be highlighted and shared.  We anticipate the work will lead to a significant increase in hugs, cheers and toasts, however the description of this work is beyond the scope of this proposal.


B1. The Holidays

The holidays are a magical time when friends and family agree to put their lives on hold in order to reunite and gain weight together.  Holiday classics like It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story and Christmas Vacation will be dusted off and enjoyed by all- once Aunt Caroline remembers how to work the DVD player.  As copious amounts of booze are often involved, it’s also a time when uncomfortable family secrets may leak out.  Fortunately, the emotional trauma from these events is often lessened by a gift exchange.

B2. We’re Poor

We have no money. We can’t give out “hugs”…again.  There’s an awkward silence that follows a gift exchange when someone hands you an iPod, and in return, you give them an extra-long hug.  “I hope you enjoyed that hug as much as I’m going to enjoy this iPod.”  The silence may last months.

B3. We Need Help

Oh, the joys of the holidays.  Hot cocoa, caroling and fruitcake.  Yes, fruitcake that lovely fruit- er, cake, whatever it is.  Fruitcake tends to come to mind when you think about gifts that you don’t want to receive.  But, often we are met with buying gifts for co-workers that we don’t really know.  It could be the luck of the draw in the secret gift exchange at work or trying to be fair and include everyone in your lab when it comes to gift giving.  Whatever it is, there need to be some rules put forth about gift giving.


C1. Identification that the holidays are approaching

We have made significant strides in looking at the calendar and we’ve noticed that the holidays are a couple of weeks away.  As usual, Thanksgiving was a good tip-off.  We’ve done no shopping, mainly because we’re stuck in lab.  We’re also procrastinating losers.


Aim 1: Make a list of everyone we know

D1. Make a List and Check it Twice

Rationale: We simply don’t have the time or energy to shop for everyone we know.  And who is “everyone” these days – family, friends, Twitter/Facebook contacts?  Time for a distillation…

Methods: Make a list of everyone you need to buy gifts for.  This part could be easy or hard.  If you only buy for a set number of people each year, let’s say mom, dad, brother and girlfriend then this part isn’t difficult.  But if you are the type of person who likes to buy gifts for everyone you think might buy a gift for you or just like gift-giving, your list might look something like this: labmate, friend, Aunt Mildred, cousin Pete, guy you don’t know but always see on the subway, whatever.  In this case, you may want to pull up a chair – it’s gonna be a while.

Potential Problems: The grey area.  Friends that may get you a present, but it’s not clear.  Other situations to be aware of include the “let’s no get eachother presents this year” trap.  At the very least, have a heartfelt card prepared.  But have something – they will.

Aim 2: Find our wallet

D2. Set a budget

Rationale: We could reference a million papers here.  And by “papers,” we mean bank statements…

Methods: I prefer to set a budget per individual, such as $50 for parents, $20 for siblings and $10 for others.  Another option here is to agree to buy a gift as a group.  Maybe you and your brother can go on a gift for your parents together.  This way you may be able to get a nicer gift that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford.  It’s a good idea to set a limit on the amount you will spend on presents for each other or at least discuss it to some extent.  If you don’t want to come off too obvious maybe ask “what are you thinking of getting Julie (insert a mutual friend’s name in place of Julie)?”

Potential Problems: The present-spend mismatch.  Generally, we try to match present size to avoid feeling like (or making someone feel like) a jerk.  It’s not necessarily the cost that counts, it is the amount of thought that went into it.  If someone gives you a framed print from your favorite artist, you’d better not return the favor with the rest of the Slim-Jim you’re in the middle of eating.

Aim 3: Use our brain

D3. Think about meaningful gifts

Rationale: The holidays are about showing the people in your life that you care about them.  Uh, so care about them.

Methods: Gift giving is all about personalization so think about your relationship with the person receiving the gift.  This is particular important when it comes to giving really personal gifts.  Speaking of which, it is important to know the personality of the person you are giving a gift to.  If they are easily embarrassed, or have pride, “born to pcr” thong underwear is NOT appropriate. Is there anything they have hinted at throughout the year?  Be resourceful, ask around, does mom have an idea for dad?

Science is a diverse field.  And this extends especially to the different cultures represented by scientists.  Be aware of the beliefs and practices of those around you.  Maybe not everyone in your lab celebrates Christmas or Chanukah or Kwanzaa or Paganism.  Respect their beliefs and determine what is appropriate as gift-giving etiquette in their culture.  Maybe they celebrate the winter solstice and enjoy sharing recipes at this time of year as opposed to tangible presents.

Potential Problems: Using the old melon can be hard, particularly after an exhausting day in lab.  But this is a critical step, so as Tim Gunn says “Make it work, people.”  Try to carve some time out in the middle of the day to brainstorm.  In order to survive a holiday season on a grad student or postdoc’s budget, we must be creative.

Aim 4: Don’t go broke

D4. There are plenty of options out there.

Rationale: In a world where Google can find any item imaginable in 0.34 seconds flat, it’s clear that selection is not the limiting factor in holiday shopping.  Usually, it’s our wallets.

Methods: An alternative to outright buying gifts is to make them.  My undergraduate organic chemistry professor  explained how she once made Christmas tree ornaments out of round-bottom flasks from lab. Criminal, perhaps. Creative, absolutely.  Maybe you’re not into lab items.  It’s probably better that way… If you have a knack for wood-carving and want to whittle 20 different snowflakes for ornaments, go for it.  Or if you have a rockin’ playlist that you think your brother would thoroughly enjoy, make him a CD of it.  Again, showing that you care is the real goal.

Potential Problems: If you are making gifts, make sure the intended receiver would appreciate the gift.  We know the saying “it is the thought that counts.”  But we also know that if you think I would enjoy mixed CD of emo punk music, you obviously don’t get me.

D5. Retail is for suckas.

Rationale: These days, everybody’s looking for a deal, and retailers know this.  As a result, it’s getting easier and easier to find great merchandise for a severely discounted price.

Methods: Shop around.  Look at the junk mail; are there any fliers for the local store?  Go online and research the sales; is the local hardware store offering a 20% off sale this weekend only.  Buying on a budget means buying smart with your money, make sure to really research the price of the product so that you can walk away with the best deal.  Remember, the person won’t know how much you spent on the gift so it shouldn’t matter.

Retail Me Not

If purchasing online, check to see if the vendor has a “Promotional code” box available during check-out.  If so, jump over to a coupon aggregator site such as Retail Me Not and simply enter the URL for the site.  It takes about a minute and can save you some serious cash.

Discount shops

There are tons of discount stores packed with name-brand merchandise for a fraction of the retail price (Outlet Malls, Filene’s Basement, TJ Maxx, Marshalls, Discount Shoe Warehouse, etc.).  If you’re out browsing for gifts, pop in to see what’s available.

Potential problems: Wandering into a store and paying full price when it’s 50% off two doors down.  You’re used to doing research…do some.

D6. Gifts for a scientist.

Rationale: You can take the scientist out of the lab, but, well, you know…

Methods: Here are a few ideas to check out that may help them release their clutches on the pipetman.

A Free All-occasion greeting card

Designed exclusively for BenchFly readers!  And how much better does it get than free?!  Find links to other cards here as well.

Hungry Scientist’s Handbook by Patrick Buckley and Lily Binns

This books details great DIY guidelines to make cool projects that ever scientist thinks about.  These include food and drink related projects including baking bread with wild yeast, cryogenic ice cream and super-chilled martinis.  Also, for the more tech-savvy group make a computer chip trivet or LED lollipops.  Whichever project they start with your scientist will thank you for expanding his knowledge base on the unique things they can do with science.

Ipod Speaker Station (several manufacturers)

For blasting out in the lab to their favorite music.  Especially on Saturday evening when no one is around.

This site has witty, geeky designs that could be purchased as t-shirts, buttons, bags, mugs and much more, including some for baby (born to clone) and adult (save a horse ride a scientist).

Another great site offering creative and edgy t-shirts with sayings that only a scientist can appreciate.  Our favorites: “What I learned in lab: hot glass looks the same as cold glass,” and “πrate” (as in pirate, get it?).

Archie McPhee is an unique store selling all the classic hilarious gifts and new, soon to be trendy gifts like a bacon air freshener.  Although this site is directly related to science items, their products will lighten the mood and give your scientists a much needed break.

Everything that a geek would want.  Including Buckyball magnetic building spheres and a periodic table fridge magnet.  Or get your favorite scientist their own laser pointer.  Really, they might appreciate that.  This site will not disappoint!

Check this site out for an impressive collection of scarves and ties made from original electron microscopy images.  My favorite is the energy line, which is made from mitochondria images.

Potential problems: Online purchases can be seriously complicated by lack of computer (since you’re reading this, we’ll assume you’re clear), lack of credit/ATM card, or lack of money.  Unfortunately, we can’t help much with the last two.

D7. Gifts for non-scientists

Rationale: The non-scientist in your life probably doesn’t want anything related to the bench.  But that’s where we spend all of our time. Hmmm- Problem.  But there are several very easy options right around the corner. Ahhh- Solution.


Gifts from the university bookstore

Don’t overlook the power of a sweatshirt with your university’s name on it – everyone loves a hoodie.  Or a stainless steel thermos mug for the long walk or drive to work.  Or luggage tags- given we basically have to buy a separate ticket for our bags to get on the plane these days, you certainly don’t want to lose them!  They often have greeting cards as well, so this can be a one-stop shop.  And you can grab it on the way home.

Burt’s Bees Essential Body Kit

These have more equipment in them than a chemistry lab.  It’s guaranteed to have something for even the pickiest of individuals.

Penzey’s Spice Set

These are good.  No, these are great. For the cook in your life, treat them to some amazing blends.  Fantastic selection – you can’t go wrong.

Potential Problems: You might ignore our advice.

H. Resource Sharing

If necessary, we may re-gift items.  However, these cases will be restricted to occasions where we see a fair-trade opportunity.  We will also not trade for personal items such as socks, underwear and razor blades if the packages have been noticeably opened.

7 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. kfly

    wrote on December 12, 2009 at 3:04 am

    Just found this out recently and thought I would share — you know those 20% off coupons from Bed, Bath and Beyond they are always sending but you never seem to use them in time before the expiration date? Well I found out from a store manager that they always accept the coupons, even if the date printed on them has passed, because they're always sending more out. Now I save them up and leave them in my car — that way whenever I happen to head to BB&B I can always save at least 20% on whatever I purchase. Happy shopping!

  2. Biochem Belle

    wrote on December 12, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    An excellent proposal. However, it seems you have not discussed methods of packaging and administration: Does one opt for gift wrap or gift bag? Is packaging done in-house or outsourced? Is administration best achieved before or after consumption of copious amounts of alcohol?

    I am also concerned by the apparent lack of a data sharing plan and human subjects research assurances.

  3. [email protected]

    wrote on December 13, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    Like Nostadamus, you've seen the future… Stay tuned for "Packaging and Administration" Instructions!

  4. [email protected]

    wrote on December 13, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    A thorough examination of the probability of a ruined surprise reveals an exponential relationship between the odds of spoilage and the number of people aware of the gift plan. As a result, data sharing prior to the holiday event is highly discouraged. The one notable exception being joint presents, which require an open and collaborative environment.

    We can make no assurances about the safety of the human subjects. We can only suggest that Personal Protective Equipment is worn at all times to minimize the damage done by a poorly received gift. On a related note, weight-related presents are given at your own risk.

  5. Biochem Belle

    wrote on December 12, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    In the interest of data sharing, you can earn up to 20% cashback at select retailers when you shop through Bing (

  6. Holiday Wishes Do (Sometimes) Come True! | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on December 14, 2009 at 1:23 am

    […] Holiday Shopping Guide provided suggestions on how to fulfill the wishes of those around us this holiday season.  But […]

  7. Keep Your Sanity With a Smile | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on December 2, 2010 at 10:02 pm

    […] Scientists’ Holiday Shopping Guide (soon to be) Endorsed by the NIH – a fool-proof shopping guide in our own language – an NIH grant […]

Leave a comment

will not be published