Thursday, September 29, 2005

Grouchy lab members & lab etiquette

So I am having one of those days where one bad encounter has my pulse racing with the 'fight! fight!' instinct going loud and clear.

This week I needed to get some commonly used cells from a few different places, so this involved asking around. One person said yeah, no problem, and pointed me to the right person. That person was kind of gruff, but ultimately gave me what I needed on time and with no hassle. Such is life with antisocial scientists. But I really don't mind, as long as I get what I need.

The other person said there is someone in particular who handles that stuff, but instead of just introducing me to that person so I could ask myself, acted really weird and instead relayed the request indirectly, like I was some kind of interloper. Anyway I thought that was a very strange way to handle it, and kind of rude, since sharing is just part of the business and shouldn't be a big production of tip-toeing around and being hypersensitive. I said so, more or less, but then I just let it go. I don't have time for people's weirdnesses and it's not a big deal.

But then she came to my office and bitched at me, head & neck side-to-side with the whole angry sistah thing (and she's white, so I thought it was pretty funny). Apparently I started some kind of huge argument by reacting to her behavior the way I did.

I thought I liked this person, partly because she is pretty blunt about stuff and I usually like that, but now I think she just needs to learn some communication skills... and maybe I was expecting her to be more mature than she actually is. So I'm trying to figure out how to diffuse the situation. I haven't run into anyone who was such a hothead in a long time, besides myself, and I think I'm mostly on good behavior these days, so I'm quelling my instinct to go in there and bitch her out in front of her whole lab.

Which is worse, picking a fight in public or cornering someone in their office to bitch at them?

So I'm thinking, what do you do?

I already tried to ask if she wanted to get together and talk, but she just acted like I was nuts. I'm guessing she needs some more time to cool off and deal with whatever else is up her butt today. I hate it when people are in a bad mood and taking it out on you for something totally unrelated.

The typical girl thang is to just wait and pretend like it never happened, all the while reserving some judgment to see whether this has any hope of being a friendship.

I could send some kind of sarcastic e-card, I was thinking something along the lines of "sorry you're feeling bitchy today", but I don't know if she'd think that was funny or if it would just piss her off even more. I'm guessing the latter since we're not close friends.

I hate it when other people's insecurities get me all riled up. I really don't have time to worry about this, but when you work with people this much, they're like your roommates. You don't want to let it get bad early on, or it's only going to get worse.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Well-meaning bureaucrats

The theme of the day is stupid hoops that well-meaning bureaucrats dream up to try to make PIs take care of their postdocs, or to try to make NIH take care of their postdocs, and why those hoops fail to do anybody any good.

So I have mentioned that I am a postdoc and that I recently applied for a grant. The astute among you are probably aware that postdocs are generally not allowed to apply for grants as such, and most universities require special permission for postdocs to do so.

The thing that really got me in trouble on this grant process was the pile of paperwork that my advisor was supposed to do, but didn't. She is usually very forthcoming about what she will and won't do, but for some reason this time she didn't, and ultimately ended up saying I should just do it for her and she would sign off on it. This is also the way she handles recommendation letters. We draft everything and then she makes minor changes.

Many PIs are like this. I don't know the percentages of people at each level who are aware of just how common this is, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't include any of the bureaucrats who think it is a good idea to force the PI to write a page or two about how committed they or the university might be to having me, the postdoc, get a grant.

I'm sure they mean well. I've even sat on committees that recommended these kinds of things, and it's supposed to be an excuse to stimulate communication, these little things that are supposed to get written. Of course the most useful ones, e.g. the annual evaluations, never get done because there is no postdoc office to enforce it.

But all things attached to money are enforced.

So for this grant I not only had to write a letter for my advisor, but I also had to write 2 pages on why I should be given permission to apply for the grant, as well as 2 pages on the facilities and other resources available for me to do the research. All of these things are ostensibly my advisor's job. And she's not unusual in expecting me to do it.

Anyway I'm just laughing because I'm reading Bridges to Independence again, and it's a lot of the same thing. It's very clear where this mentality comes from. These people mean well, they really do. It's just the implementation that totally fails.

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Monday, September 26, 2005

Weekend Redemption

So, I had a great weekend, for once. Heard some live music, and liked some of it enough to buy a new CD from a band I never would have heard of otherwise. Went SHOPPING. Saw some friends. Saw a movie. Did not go to the grocery store or do any laundry. Mua hahahaha.

The bad news is, it's Monday, and Lazarus is dead again. My email is down, and my cell phone battery has died even though it is new, and I fully charged it two days ago, and haven't talked on it, and it's supposed to have like 4 days of standby time. I am wondering if I should take it back and get something else. Already. Like I want to add yet another errand to my long list.

So this morning my goal was to, you know, communicate with a few people about finalizing the paperwork for my grant, I think there is one more signature I need to get, and a couple of forms about budget stuff that need to be sent to different people who were supposed to already have them, yada yada. Bunch of idiot paper-pushers, I finally understand the real meaning of bureaucracy.

But since I can't email or phone anyone from my own office, I have to decide if it is better to go and try to use someone else's phone... I guess that is my only option at this point. And it might give me a chance to pitch another small fit about us still not having office telephone access. It's just ridiculous. I swear it will eventually escalate to full-scale tantrum if there are no signs of improvement!

I should be doing more job applications, but I would feel a lot better if this stupid grant were totally off my desk. As it is, I am wondering when I will be driving the package over, since I'm not sure I trust campus mail to handle it fast enough. I really want that to be done today.

So, it feels like a Monday, and I can't even distract myself by programming my phone and calling to make various doctors appointments, because that was my original fun plan for procrastinating. So lame when technology totally fails en masse.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

friday night insomnia

well, we went out with some friends and I swear, there is something in tequila that keeps me awake worse than coffee. I did not even drink that much, at all. I slept for about 2 hours, and now I'm up, watching The Usual Suspects on tv. I've seen it before, but I don't remember all the details of the plot.

It was a pretty crappy week overall, when I finished with LaTeX it still took me half a day to deal with formatting paperwork in Word. Didn't get all my recommendation letters, didn't get all my signatures, so the whole thing is sitting in my office and I'll drop it off Monday for the internal crap to get finished. My favorite was the person whose whole job it is to calculate the internal funding stuff, she sent me the files but didn't send them to the office who actually cares about the exact numbers... I figure, at this point, it really doesn't matter unless I actually get the grant, and that's a lot of months away.

Had to give a talk today, it was the worst kind. Most of the audience was people who have already heard it, and it was so short I couldn't show any data. So of course I didn't get any questions. I hate giving talks and not getting questions. Of course the guy who insisted on having this seminar series really didn't do a very good job of drumming up people interested in attending it! He was more intent on lecturing me about what kind of talk I should give.

So there's a lesson for you: never be the first person to speak in a new series, unless you know there is a guaranteed audience. It's better to wait until people get in the habit of coming, and the word gets out. Otherwise it doesn't matter how good your talk is!

Actually the talk was good, or so I'm told. I didn't think it was anything special. I practiced it last night a few times, and my advisor said it was great, really polished, that I'm really ready for job interviews now. Which is such a joke, it's just that the other talks I've given this year were totally unrehearsed things that came up at the last minute. This talk I gave today was no better than my thesis defense was three years ago. Oh well, if that's all you had to do to get a job, I guess I'd already have one. But she was very sweet, she said "I hope you get some interviews." Isn't that nice? Too bad she's not on the phone calling up people on search committees telling them how I'm exactly the person they need! People still really don't want to admit that's what happens behind the scenes.

Speaking of behind the scenes, I went to a thesis talk today, too. It was great, but kind of funny because the poor student wasn't allowed to talk about some of his stuff. His advisor is totally paranoid, and basically hamstrung him by saying he could mention some of it but not all of it... of course everyone asked about exactly the experiments he wasn't allowed to discuss! It was especially funny since I know about all of the 'secret' experiments, and I can honestly say that nobody cares . There is no way this guy would get scooped for presenting his own data at this own thesis defense. It's just not that interesting, and nobody else there works on that stuff. Plus he's too far along to get scooped at this point.

And, I ran into someone I hadn't seen in a while. This is the someone I think might have filed the harassment complaint, but I couldn't bring myself to ask outright and I couldn't figure out how to steer the conversation so it might just, you know, happen to come up. Anyway the guy, you know, the guy, he is apparently getting his karmic payback, rumor has it he is ill and in the hospital. Like these hurricanes, some people are saying it's a message from God, like when Charley hit Florida and only the red counties, not the blue ones. But I was surprised, I found out today that harassment charges are the only, the one and only, thing that can override tenure and get you kicked out. Very interesting. Not that it would matter much, he's got more than enough money to support himself and his family for years to come, even if he can't work and has to pay hospital bills.

I've never met any rich people I actually liked.

So... I'm still tired, but I still doubt I'll be able to sleep. I'm kind of hell-bent on not working this weekend, but now I'm wondering how much fun it will actually be to force myself to have, you know, 'fun.'

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Coming soon: advanced LaTeX for grants

Ok, so as usual, people seem to assume I'm stupid, but actually what I'm trying to do is pretty advanced.

Am learning the ins and outs of floatflt vs. wrapfig. Suffice it to say, I am kind of astounded there isn't something already out there that explains how to handle a document with lots of figures and subsections. At the moment, our workaround is to make the subsections in boldface, e.g. \bf rather than \subsection, because that tricks the figure management packages into letting you insert figures where you would otherwise get errors, or worse, no figure inserted at all...

Gotta say, this has been pretty frustrating, but I feel like I'm learning a lot, and not just about LaTeX. I'm finding that my long-standing fears of programming mostly stem from my need for explicit, literal instructions and precise definitions for everything. Which is to say, calling things by their correct names, with the correct syntax... but I also tend to get lost when there are too many finer points. For example, WHY??? did the person who wrote wrapfig decide that curly brackets are better than square ones, when floatflt uses square brackets FOR THE EXACT SAME OPTION?? e.g:





I am still not accustomed enough to looking at squinched up little piles of brackets to immediately spot the differences there. And the error messages I'm getting are not polite enough to just say, "Uh, excuse me, m'am? You used the wrong bracket thar."


Anyway it's bringing back all kinds of memories of taking the one or two programming courses I managed to survive in school, and why I didn't go further with programming... I think it mostly comes back to total lack of communication skills.

So that is my theory for the day: why there aren't more women in computer science = TOTAL LACK OF COMMUNICATION SKILLS on the part of the people writing computer science textbooks and teaching classes. Now, I'm sure there must be somebody out there who could teach me tons of programming languages in no time flat, but I doubt there are very many. If one of them could please teleport to my office RIGHT NOW, that would be great.


Monday, September 19, 2005

I need toys.

Lots of paper-pushing and editing and mailing today. Have the office to myself again, am wondering if I should be concerned that my office mate didn't mention being gone? Or just jealous?

At least I can crank up my music without the headphones...

Was working very well for ~ 6 hours, but now I'm kind of reaching my limit and taking lots of little breaks. I hate sitting still all day! I think I need some creativity toys in my office. Any suggestions? It can't be anything big.

Friday, September 16, 2005

High TeX

Wow, so I am really proud of myself today. Granted, I haven't tried to see if any of the stuff I'm doing will actually work as output, but my sourcefiles are looking pretty spiffy! I have tables and references and everything!

Overall, it has been a quiet day. My office mate apparently took the day off (?) along with a couple other people on our floor. Is this a holiday I'm forgetting about?? Got some minor feedback on my grant, so I'm fixing some of that stuff. Only one person tried to talk my ear off, and fortunately the phone rang so I had a good excuse to escape. I looked over my slides for a talk I'm giving soon and realized they look pretty good so I don't need to worry much about that. And a friend suggested a really cool idea for a side-project, so I'm kind of excited to get going on that. Not that I have time for more projects!

Now I'm just trying to decide if it's really pathetic to leave early for happy hour. I'm STARVING. I know, happy hour is supposed to be about alcohol, but food is wayyyy more important right now. How is it that sitting at my computer all day makes me hungrier than when I'm running around? It just seems unfair.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Bad day.

This time of year is really hard for me. I lost someone a few years ago to suicide, and it happened to be around the same time as 9/11, so now with Katrina almost coinciding on the anniversary, I'm having flashbacks to national disasters and horrifying phone calls with bad news.

Last night I was sad because I felt like I was starting to forget him. We worked together, it's not like we dated or anything. So it was especially strange to have a very vivid dream last night, and there he was! It was very normal, I guess it was my imaginary version of what it would be like if he were still here. I still don't understand how our brains can store all this information and recreate it so perfectly, but my brain won't do it on demand, at least not if I'm awake. I always liked the way they had holographic recordings of people on Star Trek. I could use one of those.

Anyway this morning I was really depressed when I woke up. I guess you never really get over losing someone so young. He was the age I am now.

I forced myself to come to lab and start getting the administrative burden of my grant shifted onto the appropriate administrators. Of course I was chastised by people I have never met before, I'm sure I made a great impression with my obvious complete lack of clue.

I guess what annoyed me the most was that nobody seems to want to teach me the correct way to do this. Granted, I hopefully will never have to do this same kind of grant again at this same university, but I really don't like working in the pitch dark.

Then I decided to go ahead and start learning LaTeX, which doesn't seem that hard, but once again, there are no step-by-step instructions. This is what I hate about trying to learn programming. All I need is a list of reagents and a protocol. E.g., here are the parts you will need, here is how you make them, here is what you do with the parts to put them together, here is what it will look like when you're done.

Nobody seems to want to do that in the computer world. They hand you a gigantic dictionary and tell you to write. No grammar, no examples of books like the one you're supposed to produce. It's ridiculous.

Which would all have been okay, except that the coffee place was closed at 3 pm when I went down there- WTF??? I so don't deserve this today.

Anyway I think I am just feeling really isolated and needing feedback. I hate sending these job applications and not hearing anything for months. So I don't feel like doing more of them, the psychology of it says "what's the point"?
I need some kind of Pavlovian trigger. They should send you a cookie for every application you send in. You know, some tiny token of acknowledgment.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


Ok, so I made a report about this guy, finally. Unfortunately the person handling the case isn't allowed to disclose anything, so the conversation went something like this:

her: "Someone has made a complaint and we think you might know something about the situation."
me: "And you're not allowed to tell me who it was or what it was about, are you."
her: "No."
me: "Well, I should have reported this a long time ago anyway, so I'm assume this is what it's about...." etc.

At the end of the discussion:

me: "Well I hope that helps you, but I don't suppose you're allowed to tell me that, either."
her: "No. If all goes well, you'll never hear from me again."

So not only am I not sure who filed what complaint against whom, but I won't know if any punishment is meted out at all. Bummer.

And for the person who asked if I could assume it was a guy, they actually post the statistics of reported complaints for every year. Last year there were 5 PAGES full of complaints for our university. Only one was brought by a guy, and it was about another guy.

Anyway I was a little shaken up after I made this report. The woman was very understanding and I wasn't upset or anything, but it was kind of a big deal to admit yes, I think I was discriminated against.

Definitely don't do that every day.

She gave me her card and asked me to contact her if I think of anything else. Well let's see. I started doing martial arts while I was working in that lab. I never had any desire to do that previously. I also started reading books like "Women Scientists in America" and "Lifting a Ton of Feathers." I think I knew it was really bad, but I kept trying to ignore it. That's what I told her. I knew he was being sexist but it was subtle enough that I was able to try to ignore it.

But I must have been really pissed off, and I knew it. I realized this when I started in my new lab and I suddenly had a lot less desire to kick things.

In other news, speaking of kicking things, I am locked in a battle of wills with Microsoft Word. Yes, the grant is almost done. Yes, the deadline is a hard one, I absolutely have to get it finished. Yes, I am also trying to do job applications at the same time. Yes, I am a bit stressed.

But I gotta ask: isn't there something better to use for layout? And don't say LaTeX, I'm just not ready for that yet. Not this time around, anyway.

Anybody use PageMaker or something like that for these things? Anything where I have 20+ figures of random shapes and sizes, on only about 20 pages of text, suddenly things get really messy. I finally realized that Word assumes you'll have more text than figures, and that's where my problems come in. And pretty soon (like, probably today) I'm going to have to pick a fight with Endnote, too. That's really the only reason I'm using Word. Somebody needs to come up with a stripped-down package for inserting references in other word processing programs.

I really do think writing grants would be relatively painless if we had templates that made it easy to insert figures, callouts, references, etc. Right now I think the average person has to spend more time formatting than actually thinking about the experiments. In fact, my boyfriend is a computer whiz so I can always get him to help me when I'm really stuck. What on earth does everybody else do??

BTW, if you haven't seen it yet, check out "Bridges to Independence" from the National Academy. You can read it for free online. The more I read it, the more I like it.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

A Sexy Topic

Oh, hahahaha, I am so mean for picking this title, but I just have to share this since I want to get up and do a little dance for karmic victory.

I was contacted today by someone at my University's Office That Handles Sexual Harrassment.

Ooooooeeeeeeee. Somehow I think there is no possible way for this story to have a boring ending.

There could be an ironic twist of fate: I may find out that this has nothing to do with the ethically questionable behavior I actually witnessed, and might involve other people altogether. Well now that I think about it, maybe I know about other ethically questionable things that this Office would handle...

But I sure hope this is about the totally illegal, extremely uncool stuff I actually witnessed. It's about time somebody did something about it.

Why didn't I report it myself, you might ask?

Well here is a lesson for the younger folks out there:

what goes around (and by that I mean rumors), comes around.

Drop a hint here and there, and eventually the shit will work its way up to the fan. Especially if it's true and more than one person hints at it. And it's less likely that everyone will know you're the one who pointed the finger. Saves you from some of that 'blame-the-messenger' phenomenon we all love so much.

More to the point, reporting someone usually requires that the harrassment actually happened directly to you. While I witnessed some blatantly bad stuff, what I experienced myself was the sort of thing no one could corroborate. Plus it was borderline ignorable. In other words, no single event was that upsetting. But taken together, there was definitely an unprofessional pattern of behavior.

I try not to think about it that much. I've tried to play it very safe and avoid any situations or clothing that might escalate any borderline situations.

Okay, yeah, I felt harrassed. But does anybody really believe that verbal harrassment matters?

I felt like it was not my place to report the physical stuff I knew about mostly indirectly, since it was also borderline consensual, whatever that means. Hard to save people from themselves....

I guess I'm just hoping this person finally reported it herself. But maybe that means something truly horrible happened? It would be really sad if it took something really catastrophic to get her to stand up for herself. Unfortunately I seriously doubt the Office is allowed to tell me who reported it, and exactly what they reported.

Here's hoping we get to do an even better dance soon. You know, the one that goes: Fry, sucker, fry!!

I've been banking on the Karmic Payback Plan. Here's hoping it pays off. I'm probably a bad person for wanting to see this guy get what's coming to him, but it does give me a little bit of glee. Heh heh heh.

An Old Topic

So a while back we had a ferocious discussion going here about whether we do our best work while we're young.

I'm going to say again, yes I think so.

And this is in part in response to a comment from someone who agreed that it's pretty sad that I mostly only want to do actual work for about 2 hours a day lately. There are plenty of work and career-related things that eat up my time during the day and technically count as part of my job, like answering questions for people, finding and reading papers in my field, emailing with collaborators, sending out application packages, etc. But actually working on my grant, for example, I'm better at the long view. I tend to do large projects in little bits over months, rather than in a huge crunch the 2 weeks before it's due. So 2 hours a day is about all I can muster. That is the experimentally measured length of my attention span (without coffee... haven't really tested it in the presence of coffee).

But I felt vindicated because I saw a couple of friends at this meeting recently. We all went to grad school together and we were all very hard workers. They were the first people I've met who said that, much as we all like bench work, we're ~ 30 years old and we're tired of it. We've had some technical help recently and have come to appreciate that it's just as fun, or even more fun, to supervise someone than to do it ourselves.

So does that mean our contributions to science are over? Who knows. But we won't be creative in the same ways, I'm sure. Since my most recent student left, I realized that for the stuff I'm doing now, I tend to change my mind a lot as I go along. As I'm pipetting out the samples, I often think of extra controls or fun little side things I could throw in, for not that much extra work. If I stay at my desk and someone else does the pipetting, will I ever think of those things?

But I'd still rather be directing research than working at the bench. I'm tired of hunting for things since our lab moved. I realized today that I've worked in 5 different lab spaces in the last 5 years, and no wonder I'm so tired of hunting for things! I love to daydream about my fictional lab space in the sky, where I will have ordered everything and put it all away myself. At least at the beginning when I actually will be doing some bench work myself, I will know exactly where everything is. Assuming I can remember where I put it.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Missing Graduate

I visited my Mom a few days ago, and on our way out she was piling up little presents for me. Here's a bag of freebie Estee Lauder products, she said. Here are some articles I cut out of the paper for you. Here are some books I thought you would enjoy.

One of the books was a thesis. She found it at a used book sale. There were 8 copies, she said. It was from Seoul University, with the signature page in Korean, but written in English, on a topic pretty similar to my field. So, I could have read it and understood it.

The thing is, most people don't print more than about 8 copies of their thesis. So that was probably the whole set. It was recent, something like 2002. And even my mother knew it was potentially the saddest thing possible that they were all sitting there for sale for $1 each.

Anyway this got me wondering what happened to this poor person (for some reason I think it was a guy, with my limited knowledge of Korean names). Is he dead? Did he quit science? Did they revoke his degree for faking data? Why on earth would so many copies of his thesis be given to a community booksale?

I could have taken it with me, and I did consider it. I felt I could do a good deed by reading it. But I just didn't have enough room in my suitcase.