The High & Mighty


Here is something I ponder: How fair is it to judge those within my scientific area of expertise with a heightened level of scrutiny?

My lab has a revolving door for postdoc candidates. They come in, and they go out. Another week, another postdoc candidate interview. And we get all different flavors, you know. Biologists, chemists, material scientists, and a whole assortment of engineers.

Short of noticing GlamourMag pubz on these candidates' CVs, I have no fucking clue as to whether or not most of them possess scientific merit. This is because they've written dissertations on topics that are by and large unfamiliar to me. Yes, I can ask them cursory questions about their work. They will satisfy me with some hand-waving and claims of greatness, and then I'll move on to the questions they're more likely to fuck up- such as why-do-you-want-to-work-here. In any case, I just can't really judge them based on their science.

But we do get some candidates that have worked on Mangoes as graduate students. And, of course, I am in a much better position to ask them probing questions about their experimental approach, downstream applications, and next steps. These lucky candidates are fully subject to my preconceived notions of what is Hot and Not in Mango science. It's very easy for me to tell whether or not their work is of the Me, Too variety. And it's easy for me to know whether or not they've been asking the most efficient questions.

For a variety of reasons, my lab is in a position to do top-notch Mango research. I like what we do; I respect what we do. But I also completely appreciate that not everyone has the money or the connections to do awe-inspiring Mango slicing studies. So, I try to give some of these candidates a break if it's clear to me that they've done the best they can with what they've been given.

Recently, I interviewed a candidate who was doing a Mango slicing Ph.D. project. Afterwards, one of my colleagues explicitly asked for my honest opinion of the candidate's work, and I gave it to him- I thought the research was uninspired and less-than-thorough. There was nothing really wrong with it, but nothing particularly eye-catching, either.

His response: "Well, aren't you high and mighty."

Sigh.

And so, when I'm in this position to judge, I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do. Am I supposed to be kind to my own kind? Or am I supposed to be honest? How can one maintain honesty without appearing snobbish and over-privileged?

Sometimes the ivory tower feels more like a prison.

Lab Safety FAIL


Yesterday, for the first time in a long time, I decided to go back and peruse my early-blog archives. I was surprised, I have to say, to read my former self. I was so damned spirited and wrote with an easy, breezy, (beautiful) style.

Gosh, when did this blog get so heavy? Today, let's try to shake it off.

A month or two ago, I was outside enjoying lunch on a scenic patch of grass. I slipped off my flip-flops and, without delay, stepped into a rancid mound of what was presumably dog shit.

Awesome.

I spent the rest of lunch keeping my foot as far away from my nose as was humanly possible. I've got to say, nothing better than being disgusted by yourself.

Now, this shit was really ingrained into my foot, and I didn't know exactly the best way to handle it. Debating: the ladies bathroom with some paper towels and girly foam soap? No, I decided, that just didn't seem like it was going to cut it. I opted for what was clearly a far superior option:



Figure A: Candid Engineer deftly employs a bottle brush and potent glassware detergent to literally scrub the shit out of her foot.

As luck would have it, one of my good pals would enter the lab and capture me engaged in this impressive display of balance, flexibility, and personal grooming skillz.

So I thought that was the end of that. But today, my labmate informed me that, apparently, he had shared this candid photo with one of his friends who is a lab safety person at another university. Said lab safety person found my acrobatics to be hilarious yet ill-advised, and has subsequently begged for my permission to include this photo in his safety presentation of things NOT to do in the lab.

I permitted it, of course. But I still maintain that lab safety people are just too frickin uptight for their own good. Because- in my opinion- revolting, shit stained feet are a pretty valid cause for lab supply improvisation.

UPDATED to add: There is some name-that-yoga-pose going on in the comments. Any other suggestions? I'm looking to introduce a new move into my routine, and need a good name for it.

Do Your Best and Forget The Rest


Last fall, I had a crystal clear plan for myself. I had several exciting projects underway (2 that were tres novel, 1 that was low-hanging fruit), and I was going to push, push, push myself experimentally. I was going to have 3 manuscripts submitted by this June/July. I was going to have CV in awesome shape for TT applications this fall. I was going to be a WinnerTM.

But the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.

Those of you out there with more research experience than me know that good research usually requires some amount of luck. I'm not sure how much luck, exactly. I'd kind of like to know. 20% luck? 50% luck? In any case, I haven't had any. I've worked hard, I've pushed on different angles of this project, I've had a student assisting me experimentally full-time on these projects. There has been absolutely no lack of effort.

And here we are, without much of anything ready to submit. Without anything for my CV.

--

For the last 4 months or so, I've been engaging in a challenging workout system called P90X. This shit is intense. It is hard, even for people who are in good shape. And it's common enough when you're doing these workouts to not have what it takes to accomplish the "move" in question. It would be easy to get discouraged when, for the 15th week in a row, I cannot do a push up and clap my hands without applying rugburn to my face. But at least in the context of my ridiculous physical maneuvers, the trainer offers a mantra, which he repeats, repeats, repeats.

Do your best, and forget the rest.

--

How much relief do I feel when I hear, when I say, when I write those words?

If you do your best, you can live without regrets.

So instead of continuing to wallow in misery over my lack of accomplishments (yes, I've been wallowing), I have now decided that I need to make a concerted effort to bring that phrase to other parts of my life. I've been trying to bring it to the lab, to bring it to my office, to hold onto it and to own it when I otherwise feel like an experimental failure. Things haven't gone my way this year- it's true. But I've done my best. And if luck is just a matter of probability, my best can keep my head held up until it's finally my turn in the rotation.

Getting Help


So, I was quietly sitting in my PI's office, and he was bent over in his chair, hand pressed to his forehead, thinking.

I had scheduled this meeting with him to ask for help. I was trying to write up a manuscript on some really tasty mangoes that I had discovered over a year ago. But I didn't have a reason why my mangoes were so tasty, and everyone (everyone) wants a mechanism. I'd been searching for a mechanism for a year and a half to no avail, I was at the end of my rope, and I was trying to write up without it.

After briefing my PI about the situation, he said he'd prefer to see a mechanism in the story, and he felt confident that we could find the answer. I told him about what I've already considered, and asked him, "What else do you think it could be?"

And that's when he paused, thinking heavily, and I sat nervously in my chair.

After a minute or two, he looked up at me and said, "It could be anything."

--

Such was my concern with meeting with my PI. He is a busy man, and he is far-removed from the experimental details of my life. Why should I bother him with a problem that he probably won't be able to fix? He has enough to do.

Mostly due to the encouragement I had received after a previous blog post, I had decided to ask him for help. He is my academic advisor, busy or not, and I needed some guidance.

I'm so glad I asked. Even though he wasn't able to help with experimental details, he made it abundantly clear that he cared and that he wanted me to succeed. He brainstormed with me other people in my lab who might have the expertise to shed light on my problem. He encouraged me to reach out to them. He also offered to make phone calls to collaborators who might have the ability to help.

He asked me why I hadn't come to him sooner with my problem. I told him that I knew he was busy and that I didn't want to bother him. He did not like this at all. He said, "I am here for you. You can meet with me every week if you want. Don't be afraid of my secretary! Just tell her you want to schedule a meeting."

Little did he know that I am plenty more afraid of him than of his secretary. People in my lab have so few one-on-one interactions with our PI that (at least in my mind), I'd prefer to save those interactions for when positive things happen. I want/need him to think of me as a winner, not as someone who can't get her shit figured out. But, given the situation as it is, I'm hoping that this interaction will help him to know me better, and perhaps give him the impression that I persevere. Who the fuck knows.

The funny thing is that ever since the meeting, every time I see him, he wants to know what kind of progress I've made on finding my mechanism. This can be slightly comical, as sometimes there is as little as half a day in between his questioning. And as you all probably know, research is slow. But his mild harassment certainly does serve the purpose of compelling me to work on it when I'd rather put it aside. I figure this is just advisor tactic #227: Hound the shit out of your trainees until their goal is accomplished.

Good enough for me. I'll take what I can get.

An Interactive Interrogation


It's that time of year, folks. DrugMonkey et al. have whipped out the annual Who-are-You meme. This kind of thing isn't usually my thing, but I'm feeling festive today, so what the hell.

So, discerning readers, I ask you:

1) Tell me about you. Who are you? Do you have a background in science? Are you an academic? Are you a student? A postdoc? A member of industry? A professah?

2) What brought you here and why have you stayed? What do you like about this blog? What changes, if any, would you like to see?

3) How do you feel about post quantity vs. quality? I post about once a week- would more frequent (but perhaps less inspired) posts be a good or bad thing?


Talk to me.

Now, I know there are hundreds of you out there who subscribe to this magazine. Some of you comment, but most of you are lurkers- now, that's cool. I'm cool with that if you're cool with that.

But just this once, I'm going to ask YOU to do me a solid. Answer at least one of my questions in the comments. You just might find that you lurve commenting!!!11!!

xoxo CE