I’ve been waiting a really long time to get my hands on the Research Institute set. No other LEGO set has attracted more mainstream media attention this year than 21110 Research Institute for a myriad of (mostly feminist) reasons, which I will not get into. If you want to dive into a well argued article on LEGO’s Gender Problem, Nick from FBTB has written a really good piece on the prickly topic.
I will however eagerly wax lyrical about how much I love this set. When the LEGO Ideas team announced that the Research Institute (formerly known as the Female Minifigure set) would be released alongside the Exo-Suit, while most LEGO fans got themselves into a frenzy over Peter Reid’s homage to Classic Space, I was equally as intrigued by Dr. Ellen Kooijman’s submission.
Update: I recently interviewed Dr. Ellen Kooijman. Do check it out to find out more about the brains behind the LEGO Research Institute!
Update 2: If you missed out, the LEGO Research Institute is now back in stock for Australia!
Strap on some safety goggles, latex gloves and put on a white lab coat, it’s time for LEGO SCIENCE!
Name: Research Institute
Set Number: 21110
Price: AU$29.99 (LEGO.com link) Currently sold out
Exclusive to: LEGO.com (for now)
Theme: LEGO Ideas
Year of Release: 2014
The Research Institute is the 8th LEGO Ideas set, with the original design submitted by real-life Geoscientist, Dr. Ellen Kooijman. The concept behind this set is really simple yet profound – a small set of female minifigures with extremely interesting scientific jobs to make your LEGO town more diverse. The set also aims to empower young girls with the knowledge that they can be anything they want to be – a Geoscientist, Chemist, Paleontologist or even an Astronomer!
I feel extremely lucky to own the Research Institute set. I was watching LEGO.com like a hawk waiting to be the first to snag the Exo-Suit (which ended up being backordered) but my Research Institute shipped okay and arrived at my doorstep a few weeks ago. I’m lucky to own it, but it really shouldn’t be like that.
Look at the prices on eBay! This is what people are actually paying for the set. I really don’t like that LEGO is becoming such a hot commodity where enterprising individuals are taking advantage of the popularity of sets like this. LEGO has come out to say that there’ll be more sets on the way, so fingers crossed we won’t have to wait too long for more Research Institutes.
I think LEGO can do so much more with addressing the availability of sets and having the foresight to predict the demand for sets like this – especially with all the media frenzy surrounding the Research Institute. LEGO needs to address the scarcity of sets and prevent their toys from becoming commodity products only available to a select few.
I say these things not just because of some misplaced sense of romanticism with my favourite childhood toy, but because the Research Institute is a really really cool set that LEGO fans are going to love! Mini-rant over and on to the review!
One of the highlights of a LEGO Ideas set is the amazingly premium packaging that the set comes in. The box is nice and sleek, with a really cool hexagon molecule-like motif littered throughout the packaging. The back of the box features a better look at the scenes that you can create with the set and on the side, the three scientist minifigures of the set are displayed prominently.
Lifting up the lid of the box, you’re greeted by the instruction manual and 3 polybags, each one numbered according to the order of which you build the different scenes. Have I mentioned how awesome the cardboard box is? It’s almost a collectible by itself.
The instruction manual is top-notch and has a nice glossy and matte feel to it. The manuals for Ideas sets just ooze quality. They feel really premium and has tons of interesting content about the designer and the Ideas Project itself. It’s more of a supplement to the LEGO set than it is an instruction manual.
Inside, you get a really nice write up of Dr. Ellen Kooijman, her professional life as well as the how the Research Institute came to become the 8th LEGO Ideas set. It also features a great snapshot of Ellen at work!
Flipping through the instruction manual, LEGO have also included three pages devoted to explaining the different fields of science that are represented by the vignettes: Paleontology, Astronomy and Chemistry. Readers will also discover more about the scientists in the set and what their professions entail.
I love that they made it a priority to explain these different sciences, to get younger kids inspired by the options available should they want to pursue a career in science. The wording is simple and straight to the point which makes it easy for children to comprehend. Nicely done, LEGO.
Another treat within the booklet, found in the actual building instructions is that within each vignette build section, the edges feature design motifs inspired by the subject matter – so there are dinosaurs in the Paleontology build section.
This is by far my favourite part of the booklet which emphasises how much effort and thought was poured into the overall design and production process.
All right, on to the actual LEGO! Introducing the leading ladies of the Research Institute, the Paleontologist, Chemist and Astronomer minifigures!
We first examine the Chemist, a new (and exclusive to this set) minifigure loosely based on the designer of the set, Dr. Ellen Kooijman.
I think this is supposed to represent Ellen, so it’s nice to put a name to a minifigure. I’m sure it’s also one of the highest honours that can be bestowed upon any LEGO fan, having a minifigure modeled after you.
Ellen has the most sciencey look out of her colleagues, sporting a traditional white lab coat which goes over a very stylish orange shirt. Her torso is wonderfully detailed, featuring an access card which has a minifigure head photo, which I thought is a brilliant touch as well as two matching orange pens.
She’s got a really cool printed face which seems to convey a look of focus and concentration, traits which I’m sure are essential for any Chemist. Flipped around, Ellen has a hysterical alternate face with an expression that can only mean one thing : “Uh oh, that can’t be good!”
Overall, Ellen’s minifigure is a spectacular addition to the LEGO family – she was right that we need more female scientist minifigures injected into the population and this particular one delivers in spades.
I really like her torso print which also has back printing, and I wish that they had extended her lab coat all the way down to her legs – as the printing kinds of ends abruptly. That said, great minifgure, underscored by a really useful and funny alternate expression.
Ellen holds an Erlenmeyer flask with some mysterious bright green liquid and a cone-shaped beaker in another hand which some yellowish liquid. I wonder what happens if you mix both reagents?
One of the things that Ellen noted in her review of the set was that the Chemist didn’t have any latex gloves on and I agree 100%. I replaced her hands with some light blue ones and it instantly looked more like a scientist. I might even just leave it this way.
Up next is the Paleontologist who is dressed up in pretty normal civilian attire. There’s a pretty good reason for that, as explained by Ellen on her blog – unless you’re in a lab or environment which requires specialised or protective gear, most scientists show up at work dressed pretty normally.
I’m going to name her Tricia, after one of my favourite dinosaurs, the Triceratops. Tricia has orange hair and is wearing a blue collared polo-shirt with khaki coloured slacks.
Not sure if this is a coincidence or a well thought out torso selection, but Tricia is wearing a necklace with a shell (fossilized perhaps?) necklace. I thought that was a subtly nice nod to her love for Paleontology.
Tricia, like Ellen has an alternate face where she’s pretty displeased and annoyed about something. As I imagine what working as an Paleontologist must be like, I expect that things go wrong in the office (or dig site) occasionally. Tricia has a massive magnifying glass as her accessory, a useful tool to inspect fossils in further detail!
The last lady to round up the gang is Stella (heh), the Astronomer. Stella leans a little more towards the plain side: she has blonde hair and is attired in a grey blazer with a purple scarf embellishment (a rather common torso) and dark blue pants which I think are jeans.
Unlike her other counterparts, she doesn’t have an alternate face or even back printing. She’s smiley all the time at work, which I guess is a side effect of having a job where you get paid to stare into space all day!
Edit: SO. It appears that I made a huge mistake with photos and my assessment of the Astronomer (thanks Ellen for pointing it out!!). The Astronomer does indeed have an alternate face. I can’t believe that I completely missed it! Anyway, this changes quite a bit as she has quite a cool alternate face with a slightly frazzled expression.
Stella is really quite an average looking minifigure, a female character that you’d expect to find in regular LEGO City or Creator sets.
The first vignette you assemble is Ellen’s scene, a quaint and minimalist chemistry lab. The scenes are built upon 6 x 6 plates and work as standalone modules that represent the Scientists’ workspaces.
Ellen’s workspace includes a bench where vials and beakers are stored on a slightly raised platform. It also features an apparatus which holds up another flask containing some purplish fluid.
Her bench has a few hidden secrets stored within the cabinets – firstly a compartment to store two clear mugs. Apparently scientists (like any other profession, really) consume a lot of coffee! I thought it was pretty funny that drinking utensils are kept right under lab equipment!
On the left end of her workbench, pulling open the top drawer will reveal where Ellen stores her pipettes, a syringe-like tool used to transfer fluids in small, accurate quantities. The bottom drawer is empty.
I really like Ellen’s vignette, especially with the surprises hidden inside the cabinets which lend a lot of character to the scene. I enjoyed the minimalist look that’s accentuated by the clever use of greys and whites, punctuated by the bright colours found within the vials and beakers.
It’s orderly, simple and clinical – exactly what you’d expect from a reputable lab where all sorts of exciting chemistry happens!
The second vignette you build belongs to Tricia and is perhaps the hero of the entire Research Institute since it features an impressively designed dinosaur skeleton.
The dinosaur skeleton, which I’m presuming is a Tyrannosaurus Rex occupies the entire 6 x 6 plate. Tricia’s workspace also includes a tightly designed microscope.
Here’s the microscope which Tricia uses to examine bones and fossils in closer detail. It’s a cute little build and even has a space where Tricia can place her magnifying glass when it’s not in use.
A slight design flaw (or part omission) with the microscope is that Tricia needs to use a step chair to get high enough to use it!
Piecing together the dinosaur skeleton was definitely the highlight of the Research Institute. The build is nothing short of ingenious, packing a ridiculous amount of detail using some really clever techniques. The tail is particularly impressive as it looks exactly like a dinosaur tail.
One of my favourite techniques employed is the use of the studs in the T-Rex’s mouth as teeth. The prehistoric skeleton is held up by a wooden rod which is a more aesthetic feature since the dinosaur is perfectly capable of standing on its own two feet.
The T-Rex skeleton is quite articulated and poseable, as you can tilt its head, fiddle around with its tiny arms as well as move its legs around. You can also detach the skeleton from the platform to allow it to roam around.
Yes, you can also animate the skeleton and use it to chomp on Tricia while Ellen watches in horror.
Yes, playing around with the dinosaur is as fun as it looks, especially when you incorporate LEGO from other sets.
The last of the vignettes is Stella’s own little space (heh), a quaint little astronomy vignette. Right off the bat, the vignette catches your eyes thanks to the wonderful checkerboard tiles which goes a long way in making this a very pleasant looking module.
At the back of this vignette is a really nice printed blackboard containing several major constellations, with perhaps Orion being the most popular of the lot. Printed elements are ALWAYS a great thing to have. This piece will also perhaps be useful to educate children with recognizing constellations in the night sky.
What would an Astronomer be without a telescope? This is perhaps a more vintage telescope model, nothing like what modern astronomers use to unravel the mysteries of the universe. It functions more as a decorative piece but it fits in well within Stella’s vignette.
The telescope can be tilted downwards so that Stella can easily look through the lens. Not included in the set is a giant celestial body for her to observe.
Final Thoughts: Availability issues aside (which I’m sure LEGO will sort out), the Research Institute is an incredibly underrated set. Sitting at a very comfortable price point (RRP-wise and not based on its value on the secondary market), the Research Institute set has the potential to be a great gateway product to get people (and girls) interested in LEGO.
The vignettes are thoughtfully designed with neat little flourishes and details that add so much to the overall charm of the set. The builds are nice and simple, which means that younger kids should have no problem assembling it. Despite the relatively easy build, I had a really pleasant and fun time putting together the vignettes. Vignettes are a really great idea and I’d love to see LEGO release more of them in the future.
Minecraft originally started out as an Ideas set and is now a full fledged theme, so it’s not exactly far-fetched to fantasize about the Research Institute carving out a niche in LEGO’s inventory further in the not too distant future.
LEGO has always been regarded as an educational tool/toy, so rolling out a Scientific theme that aims to get kids interested in discovery and learning while they play actually makes a lot of sense, at least to me.
Vignettes function really well as display pieces too but the great thing about the Research Institute sets is that the play factor isn’t compromised at all. I had a lot more fun that I initially expected placing the scientists in various poses and introducing other characters and minifigures into the vignettes to create all sorts of scenes and interactions with the 3 female scientists.
In the end, there’s really nothing I didn’t not like about the Research Institute. Having the distinction of being a fully original Ideas set that isn’t based on a movie, vehicle or existing object, the Research Institute embodies the essence of LEGO Ideas as a collaborative platform to turn great Ideas into LEGO sets.
This set is a lot of fun and will probably be within my personal Top 10 sets this year. I really hope that LEGO will rapidly address availability issues and deal a sharp blow to the speculators and hoarders who bought this set to turn a quick profit. In my humble opinion, profiteering off toys and manufactured scarcity have no place in LEGO and is something I really detest.
If you can, I highly recommend picking it up. Keep an eye out on the LEGO.com site for availability or just watch this space as I’ll try to update and let you know about when it becomes available again. Hopefully, we might even see the set in Australian retail stores.
What I liked:
- The vignettes are really fun to build, display and play with.
- The minifigure based on Dr. Ellen Kooijman is terrific
- Packaging and booklet are top notch as what you’d expect from an Ideas set
- Science is fun. LEGO is fun. Science in LEGO form is double the fun.
What I didn’t like:
- The other two minifigures were a little on the plain side
- Availability issues!!! Grrr
Thanks for reading my review, I hope you had as much fun as I did writing it. I’ll end off as I always do, with a silly picture of the set in action.
Were you one of the lucky ones that managed to buy the Research Institute before it sold out? What do you think of it? Let me know your thoughts on the LEGO Research Institute in the comments!