Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Last night I dreamt that my advisor was furious with me for missing a really important finding (in my dream, this manifested as a glowing egg). He was really excited about it and had based his entire grant on it and at least five papers.

I had to tell him that

a) I knew about the observation, because I had seen the same thing years earlier

b) I never mentioned it to him because I knew it was an artifact, which would have been obvious if he had done the control experiment.

Note that, in this dream, he was working in the lab himself, and the lab looked sort of like a classroom I had in high school.

I think the setting means that at some level, I believe he's to blame for a lot of the stuff that his trainees have done, even if it was never entirely clear to me whether he came up with it himself, or if he encouraged it without knowing any better, or just chose to be in denial.

I think my fear in this dream was multi-layered:

1. It scared me that my advisor was too optimistic and not thinking clearly
2. No one else seemed aware of the major caveats, so I felt like I was alone and going out on a limb
3. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to get him to believe me that it was an artifact, and he would continue to publish on it and get grants and no one would be the wiser

Sort of reminds me of a real event a while back, when one of his postdocs got mad at me when I pointed out that her result was not above background. I said she hadn't run one of the essential controls I had suggested.

It was crazy-making because I had been trying to tell her for a while, and she kept saying she didn't need to do it.

Except then she accused me (in front of our advisor) of not having told her to do it.

Nice, huh? Why would I do that? I don't like watching people throw good money after stupid, poorly designed experiments.

On some level, I know this is also my fear of actually being a supervisor. I've had students and peers who ignored my suggestions, and I think it's really scary that we have so many scientists who come up with excuses not to do controls. The excuses include things like:

1. You're not my advisor
2. You're just a postdoc
3. You're just a girl
4. It's too much work
5. I'm not going to do the whole experiment over again
6. It would take too long
7. Someone else said I don't have to do it

And I know, we've all said #4-7 at some point in our lives (usually as grad students). Because we were tired. Or afraid of getting scooped. Or just unaware that the reviewers might ask for you to do it anyway so you might as well do it now.

What's really baffling to me is, there is only a small percentage of scientists who will take a suggestion, no matter who it comes from, and really think it over.

And they will say, "Hmm, well, I don't know, but I haven't tried that. I should look it up and see what she is getting at, or maybe just ask her to explain more because I'm not sure I understand why she thinks this is important. And then maybe I will try that, because even if she is just a girl-postdoc, I haven't tried that before."

I guess it's because everyone is too tired and stressed out from racing around the rat-maze all day.

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At 1:57 PM, Blogger Kea said...

Yeah, one reason why there are so few real scientists in Science today. One is rewarded for ass licking, not good science.

Meanwhile, pretty well all my societal predictions from last year have come true. Nasty, unprofessional, Doody Dood is about to take up a cushy postdoc, right after finishing his Phd. Cushy postdoc will probably be with a Hot Dood, who had one female student once - so he's not sexist, right?

And my sciency predictions from last year are looking pretty good now, too. So good in fact, that doody doods everywhere are now saying it was all their idea. But I'm feeling lucky today, because I actually had one good night's sleep last week. Don't know why. Probably due to exhaustion.

At 2:25 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

What do you mean "one" reason. It's that THE reason?

Sleep is good. I get some occasionally.

Don't you just love it when the Doody Doods say they knew it all along? Isn't that just the highest compliment? =p

At 12:22 AM, Blogger Kea said...

Yes, MsPhD, I suppose it is THE reason. I can't say I ever took compliments very well - even the genuine ones. I definitely upset my ballet teacher when she commented on my nice developing figure, when I was 13.

At 7:02 AM, Blogger Tim said...

What's really baffling to me is, there is only a small percentage of scientists who will take a suggestion, no matter who it comes from, and really think it over.

this is based on what exactly? Please don't say on your personal, and yes we all know it's substantial (and biased as hell) And what is the percentage? Do you have some statistics on that, say per research institution?

Maybe your suggestions are just not always correct. You are patronizing and condescending towards your colleagues, and you are a sexist - i wouldn't listen to you even thought you I am sure you are right most of the time, because you are just so obnoxious.

At 12:00 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


Yeesh! Yeah it's funny how even when things are meant well they can come across as all wrong. I've only learned in recent years to appreciate compliments but watch out for compliment sandwiches - the ones that come with requests and/or insults are what I consider "contaminated flattery".


1. Thanks for reading.
2. Thanks for commenting.
3. Thanks for saying 'I am sure you are right most of the time." That made my day. You're the best! =D

At 4:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah...guys like that are one of the big reasons that most Big Pharma scientists I know insist on repeating literature experiments before taking them very seriously.

Not that it means anything to the Marketing-led managers, who go ahead against our recommendations, then find out after two years of Fail that Academic Startup Dude was full of it.

Can I just tell you something, because right now I suspect you're the only person who will understand? This week, my boss made a big honkin' deal out of New Guy's experiment, which New Guy just completed on Monday.

New Guy's experiment was an exact replica of an experiment I did in January. He managed, after five trials and ten months, to confirm my results. Boss was over the moon with joy, and didn't understand why I wasn't. New Guy did not do half the controls I ran, and artificially inflated his results by using a particular over-expressed gene that isn't usual for that system. It only works on this one particular overexpressed thing and doesn't work on anything else--which is what my results in Feb, March, April, etc. all showed.

I found out in June that our collaborators who insisted this worked, were only showing us about 1/3 the data set and only describing about 1/3 of their methods. Director found this out too, and duly freaked out. Now Boss wants to share New Guy's good news (of course it's *his* good news, not my old news) with Director.

If Director shoots it down as old news, Boss looks like a douche for having wasted resources. If Director does not shoot it down, and is overjoyed about this one artificially pumped-up repeated result, then I am the invisible female as usual. No win.

At 1:46 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


That SUCKS. I totally understand.

I'm not sure what you're supposed to do in that situation. I guess all you could do is remind your Boss, clearly and firmly, and preferably with some witness present, about your results and your interpretation. And state your cautions about the potential fallout as calmly as you can.

You can try to emphasize the positive parts - that it DOES work with these few limited cases, while still emphasizing that it should ONLY be used in those relevant cases and is NOT applicable to anything unlike those examples.

And/or you could always go over their heads-? That's risky, though. Especially if you enjoy being employed. =p

I always repeat literature experiments if my stuff depends on their findings. Sadly, 9 times out of 10 I can't convince myself the reported results were real.

And to think, lots of grad students and postdocs drop out because they can't reproduce published results and their PIs are too naive to realize it's because the published results were bullshit.

I have actually had to publish papers that SHOWED, in the data, that my predecessors' data was, shall we say, "filtered". Of course in the TEXT, I was never allowed to SAY SO. But hey, at least I was allowed to publish it and show the data. So anybody with half a clue will know.

Which is better than not being allowed to publish it at all. But not really educational for those who are not already experts.

And never mind that there are plenty of idiots out there who think that I screwed up somehow, and the earlier result was the "right" one.

Which is why I'm overjoyed when everything works as advertised, including the controls, on the first try.

And even in those cases, at least half the time I end up finding some weird inconsistencies later on that demonstrate unequivocally that the original interpretation was not quite right. But at least in those cases it's easier to understand that the original conclusions were good enough based on what they knew at the time.

That's the difference between Academia and Industry, I guess: Academia allows you the possibility of your own interesting results. Industry, from what I've heard, sounds like it's mostly disproving other people's bad ideas. Unless you're one of the lucky few who get to really do research (and let somebody else do the endless trials and manipulations).

Meanwhile, back in academia, Dood gets stupid irrelevant result, doesn't even bother to repeat it, and Boss loves it. Because it was done by Dood and everything Dood does is wonderful.

I can only take some mild pleasure in knowing that Dood and Boss don't have the slightest idea where to go with any of it. And are too stupid to ask me to direct the project for them. ;-)

At 3:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I reminded Boss as gently as possible that this was old news. But thus far, rather than publishing, Boss is going to make a jerk of himself by announcing his great success and then applying this system to everything under the sun...again. Thankfully, my projects are already scheduled out for the next four months, and they already failed by this system months ago. So, no question, only New Dood will be attempting to use it.

On the plus side, am trying to develop collaborations outside my department, and it seems to be working well for a couple of cases. I find out results tomorrow or Thurs. from a new project with a department that has lots of women and the PI is a decidedly non-sexist man. Eh, we'll see.

I don't know that it's all disproving someone's bad ideas. It depends on how big the organization is. Small companies used to be very good if they had funding, because they were looking to grow the company bigger; that is no longer the case. Now, small companies are only looking to get bought by larger companies, so they will do anything to fudge results. Large companies, there is more opportunity to do your own science just because no one is looking at how you spend every last penny--you can get pilot results before anyone shoots your idea down, and share them with friends if your immediate bosses are douchey. But yeah, you do get saddled with the boss' hallucination-of-the-month subscription. Although I had that too when I was in grad school, it isn't industry alone.


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