Deepwater Horizon victims

In april 2010, Deepwater Horizon, the offshore oil drilling rig, leased until 2013 by BP (British Petroleum), sank into the Gulf of Mexico causing in one of largest oil spills in history.
As a result of the disaster there was a major damage to the enviroment, as well as to the health of the residents, to the fishing industry, to turism and to real estate.

If you are a victim you may be entitled to a financial compensation, and if you are qualified you can file for a claim.

Sick Chick in the Workplace

A couple of weeks ago, I came down with a nasty cold. This was during a week when I had numerous scheduled meetings as well as various other important activities. I was producing record amounts of phlegm, and the coughing and sneezing were as frequent as they were unsexy.

My dilemma: When to go back to work? Would it be more frowned upon to miss several days of work with a cold, or to go to work sick and possibly infect others?

Colds can last a long time, and I opted to stay home for two days during the worst of it, and return to work on the day with four meetings. I was met with a mixed reaction at work. I got the "where have you been" comment from only one person, and I don't think it was meant in a mean-spirited way. Anyone else who bothered to comment asked me why I was already back at work. Only my Most Arrogant Colleague made a big show over my likelihood of taking him down with the plague.

Other than extreme nasal congestion, I felt fine the day of my return. I would have been really bored spending another day at home. But at work, I felt some embarrassment honking away in front of my relatively new colleagues. In retrospect, I probably should have stayed home for another day.

This incident has gotten me thinking about all of the pressures associated with work productivity and appearing competent, even if you should be home in bed. I have known enough people who fake an illness, that I am always concerned that people will think I am faking, just so I can sit home and be lazy.

I guess I will just have to take 10,000 mg of vitamin C per day and do a little health dance every night to ward off the illness demons. Then, I will never have to make such fretful should-I-stay-or-should-I-go choices ever again.

Vacations and (Un)Productivity

I was inspired by a post over at Happy Scientist discussing the vacationing tendencies of academics. Yes, I agree, there seems to be some kind of stigma associated with taking a break. Sometimes, I tell people about my beliefs concerning work-life balance, and they look at me like I have three heads.

After I completed my Ph.D., I took about 4 months off to 1) do some consulting work, 2) travel for one month in a foreign land, 3) celebrate the winter holidays, and 4) take my sweet time moving across the country. Many people at Brilliant University were surprised that I would take off for such a long period, and most of my post-doc colleagues took less than a month (sometimes less than a week) off between their Ph.D. and current position.

My Most Arrogant Colleague just recently graduated with his Ph.D. When I first met him (when he was still a grad student), I asked him what his plans were after graduation. He mentioned that he was thinking of doing a little traveling, and I encouraged him to do so, telling him about my own enjoyable experiences.

He then informed me that someone of his caliber would find no satisfaction in being so unproductive for even a few weeks. After all, taking a vacation displays a serious weakness of the mind. How could he take any kind of break from research? His talents are so immeasurable, that the world would suffer greatly if he was not working. Then again, how could I have taken such a vacation? Didn't I feel lazy and worthless? (There was a serious suggestion that, indeed, I was lazy and worthless.)

So, here we are, a few months later, and my Most Arrogant Colleague has graduated. And guess what he is doing? He has decided (in his infinite weakness) to go traveling the world for a month! I'm so glad that he could get over his massive unproductivity issues. I wish I could make him eat his words.

The Vortexer has Never Looked So Lovely

It is with great pleasure that I announce that, after a 6 month hiatus from pipettes and buffers, I have resumed experimental activities today. I could have never guessed how happy I would be about this development.

I have always found that succeeding as a researcher involves an odd combination of short periods of intense thought peppered in with long periods of repetitive, manual labor. I guess I've always found it surprising that many academics (despite being so good at using their heads) really enjoy lab work. Why is it that I get so much pleasure from something that requires so little brain power?

The simple answer: productivity (or the illusion of productivity).

I have spent several months now perusing a new body of literature, thinking deep thoughts with my right palm pressed against my sweaty forehead, wondering how I will get started, overcome by obstacles. Entire days have gone by when I haven't been able to identify a single productive element of the day, except maybe learning the definition of 'endogenous'. I have felt useless. I have felt lazy.

But today, with a swift flick of the wrist, I joyously began several long hours of pipetting. I am a little rusty; it is true. But I am busy again, and that makes me happy.

Ahh, the experimental life...

Research: The Fast and the Furious

Recently, I've been interviewing undergraduates at Brilliant University for a position working in the lab as a summer research assistant with yours truly. I had a number of well-qualified applicants, as well as one young lady who has been a little, um, misinformed. Here is a snippet of our conversation:

Undergrad: "Like, oh my god! It is so good to meet you! I'm, like, totally excited to do research!"
Candid Engineer: "I'm glad you have such enthusiasm. I see here on your resume that you previously worked in the Joe Doe lab. How long were you there?"
U: "I stuck around for, like, 4 weeks!"
CE: "Oh, I see. That is not very long. Did you not enjoy your experience in the Doe lab? What was the problem?"
U: "Well, I determined very quickly that the Doe lab was totally wrong for me! I discovered that, like, all of the lab work was totally manual and totally repetitive! I also realized that there was, like, no way for us to get a product out by the end of the year!"
CE: "Well, that is quite ambitious."
U: "I would rather say that they were unambitious! I want to help people! I don't want to sit around pipetting! I need to get my products out there! So people can, like, use them!"

At this point, I politely cautioned the delusional undergraduate that research is a time-consuming and lengthy labor of love, and that our satisfaction came in knowing that our work would eventually help people, however far off that may be. I then promptly ushered the wackaloon out the door, because I had to get back to work. I was about to write up the first, middle, and final version of a manuscript describing a set of experiments that I had devised and executed that morning, just after my coffee break but before my 10am snack. God, I am quick.

Who's the Boss?

One of my academic pet peeves is the phenomenon in which a graduate student and/or post-doc refers to his advisor as his ‘boss’. Although I truly appreciate the situations in which the advisor very clearly is the Boss (overbearing, unrelenting, merciless, etc.), I see an overabundance of examples in which researchers are entirely too flippant with their use of the word.

For me, one of the utopian dreams of academia is mutually-beneficial collaboration. The best advisor-student relationships that I have witnessed have been rooted in mutual respect, and both parties have worked together to achieve a common goal. The advisor does not boss the student around (except maybe during the first phase), but instead guides the student as s/he makes her way through the research gauntlet. I love this concept; I relish in the deliciousness of saying I work 'with' someone, whether that be my advisor, another grad student, or my undergraduate intern. I feel like the term 'boss' violates the core principles of academics, universities, and the whole Ph.D. process.

The other day, my colleagues and I were discussing our disinterest in some of the plans and goals that our supervisor has laid out for our common project. I indicated that, while I might be willing to spend some of my time working on the uninteresting research, I would choose to focus on something I found more appealing (but still related). One of my colleagues was totally flabbergasted, and yelled at me: "But Supervisor is the Boss! You will do what he says!" It was then my turn to be stunned. I shot back, "He is NOT my boss. I am here to use my own head and to contribute to this research in a valuable and meaningful way. I am NOT here to be someone's drone."

It is just so irritating that this concept of a boss has pervaded my new academic home. Is this what people really expect of me? To follow someone's orders?

Sometimes, I don't know what I'm doing here.