Start here

Been meaning to write for a while

But between the hectic schedule and instruments breaking down, and my energy levels at an all time low, I’ve been putting it off. Then I remembered how good it feels to let things out and feel like I’m coming up to the surface to get some air.

Earlier this year my husband and I came to the realization that moving for this job was a BIG mistake. Neither one of us is happy or feels like we’ve had some of our dreams come true. On the contrary, between health issues that send hubs to the hospital more than once, and my inability to submit and find a way to click with my boss, the heartaches and headaches have been enough. Earlier last week I realized that the only reason I took this job was because it paid more. Nothing else. My benefits at my previous job were comparable and the company ponied up the money for my retirement up front, instead of waiting 6 months or whatever (like my current job does) and deduct it from my paycheck. I know, this is silly. There are a host of other things that I’m not at liberty to discuss that make the job even less appealing, but that’s one that really pisses me off.

And sure, I butted heads with my previous boss on occasion, but he didn’t meddle in lab affairs, or wanted to control my every move, something that I’m constantly fighting against at my current job. The pay isn’t worth the heartache. The city is boring beyond compare, and the stress it has put in my marriage is simply not worth it. I’m a (semi) godless liberal … and this is most definitely not my turf.

Because of those things and more, I’ve decided to start looking for a job. I haven’t warned the boss and I don’t plan to until I have to … ie. until someone asks for recommendations specifically from them. I know it’s a huge gamble, and I’m banking on some of the senior people that I’ve worked on here to help offset my current bosses low opinion of me, the rebellious bitch.

Some of the things I’m thankful for having learned at my current job are that money will not ever buy me happiness. It certainly hasn’t alleviated my feelings of inadequacy, hasn’t funded long vacations home to decompress, let alone freed some time to spend with my husband away from work. I have learned that I’m not willing to submit to an asshole no matter how much money they throw at me (oh, I’m, starting to sound like a high paid escort). And that I was trained well and know my shit, even when the asshole boss is fixated on proving me wrong (time and time again I’ve proven them wrong, yet they continue to give me the evil eye). I’ve learned that I like the fixing part of the instrument more than I thought possible, but I would have to go back and earn a BE in mechE or EE to even attempt to apply to their company. I’ve learned that I love training students and that I can train them faster than I thought possible. I’ve updated web pages and lab protocols to help run things smoothly. I have created databases and started ways to document things that weren’t in place before I got here.

But even with all those little goals met, it’s still not enough. I’ve been asked (forced) to mold into something I’m not, into something that I thought I’d left behind. There’s a reason I didn’t pursue the academic dream, and I’ve been forced to stare at those demons in the face and reiterate that I’m not going to compromise. Academia is not for me. Never was, never will.

I’ve experienced some of the growing pains I’d faced before … when I was a postdoc. And while it hasn’t been nearly as devastating (possibly because I’d faced those demons), it has hurt, it has been painful anyway.

Sometimes I beat my chest and ask the universe, why, why didn’t I stay where I was. The comfort of what was known was reassuring. The demons I battled there were known and I could handle them. I gave myself the freedom to dream and think that I could still make it in academia, well, in the fringes. But I was wrong. There are things I knew I didn’t like and still came back … mostly because I wanted to feel needed. I wanted to know what it was like to go back to a place I’d been and dazzle everyone with my mad skillz. And that pride came to bite me in the ass. And in a way it is OK, because it means I have a couple more notches on my belt. I can lick my wounds and try to fight back. That I have a clearer picture of what I want and know my limits.

Growing pains, being an adult, being a facilities coordinator (my official title), they have all sucked pieces of me. But today I’m making the decision to stand up, to use the knowledge and skills learned and perfected over the last 1.5 years and fight back. I vow to not settle again, to not be dazzled by supposed past glories and by other people’s judgement. I vow to listen to my inner voice, the same one that warned me loud and clear that my boss was trouble; the same voice I ignored in favor of more money and prestige. Take it from me, apparent more money and prestige aren’t always what they are said to be. You need to be true to yourself and embrace your quirks and respect yourself enough to say enough, to walk back, to try to not burn bridges but still be willing to move away, for your family and your sanity.

I’m done.

The postdoc experience. The staff scientist experience

Ah, it’s that time of the year again. When new grad students, bright eyed and bushy tailed, start their classes and rotations. They’re so cute. They have so much energy and are so excited about science. I love them. I really do.

Earlier this week I had the chance to spend some QT with a new grad student in my boss’s lab. This student is bright and while at first they seemed a bit intense, turns out they have a soft-ish side and seem quite trainable. I’m really happy for said student and hope they chooses wisely.

While having a convo with the new student, I was asked about my educational background and how I felt about my current job. I’m bound by some sort of corporate thingie that prevents me from eviscerating my boss, so I was kind and smiled and told them about my former department, what I did for my PhD, the topic of my thesis and then delved into my postdoc and what my role is here and now. I paused for a moment and mentioned to them that now was the ideal time to consider why and what they wanted to do a PhD. I mentioned that during rotations, they should start forming an idea of what they want to become an expert in. That their ideas may or may not change as time passes, and discover that maybe they truly aren’t into cancer bio as much as they thought and that this is OK. We eventually talked about my postdoc and for the first time in a long time I didn’t say that I hated my postdoc. But I did say why I thought I’d failed miserably at it and the conditions that lead to me choosing the particular lab I went in and what I liked and didn’t. The convo then moved to how I’d become a staff scientist and what were the pros and cons. I explained that most staff scientists I know are not on contract and how that translates to job security (ie. none). How we still depend on profs getting grants and how when we head the instrumentation part of the lab, whatever happens is our fault, always out fault, even if we haven’t touched the stupid dry nitrogen tank in 2 months!!! I also told them about my interests and how after grad school I didn’t get “married” to a topic, but welcomed anything that fell in my hands because I couldn’t get attached to a project the way I did in grad school, especially if I’d be handling large volumes of samples for others. I knew that I had a job, ie. to prepare samples, to make sure the ideal conditions were achieved prior to data collection and that data was properly collected, recorded, processed and archived. I told them about how, in the grand scheme of things, I do a lot of work, a lot of the slow-type work, collect the raw data, but how this excites me because I get to see the data before the PI or even the grad student or postdoc sees it. I get to pass on the knowledge and train people to collect data. And I get to see how excited they are when they see they can do it on their own. I told the student about how some PIs still want to squeeze you and your time as if you were a grad student, how they would love to see you here at 7am and have you leave at 10pm like everyone in their lab. I relayed how when one is bright eyed and bushy tailed one may want to go to the very top and choose a PI based solely on their publications in C/N/S, while ignoring crazy working conditions and/or inhumane treatment. And how some people are OK with that, while others have different expectations and they have to know what they’re getting into and whether that’s OK in their book. You will be in a lab for a few years and you have to ask the tough questions, check out physical cues and trust your instincts, especially if they’re telling you to run for the hills. Papers ARE the currency in academia, but you have to remain level headed and feel good, and some labs are not very good at that, even if they only publish in C/N/S.

This whole conversation made me think about how lucky I’ve been. I haven’t had gaps in my education or work history, I’ve managed to get out of bad labs/experiences before (I’m not having good luck this time around, but I’m growing a thicker skin for some things, so I guess that is one of my lessons to learn in this job) and how I was pretty sure from the very start, that PI-dom wasn’t for me. I couldn’t see myself writing non-stop, begging granting agencies for funds for my own ideas, mostly because I felt that I had no original thoughts that were worth funding. And how I was OK with that and I much I enjoyed, and still do, providing a supportive, training role to students and postdocs. How happy I am to see the data before it gets to the PI, how I help people troubleshoot. I how I get stay current in my game, while still saving money for retirement, something I couldn’t do as a grad student or postdoc. There are many advantages to being part of the scientific staff and I wish these kinds of positions were available and found more often. I feel accomplished (when my boss is not acting like an ass) and happy in what I do. I’m proud of my job and how I help my lab. I feel important and (somewhat) valued. Things I didn’t feel while I was a postdoc.

Then later, I got to spend some time with a very bright older grad student. This person is friendly, intelligent and has some pretty big ideas. They’re now shopping for a postdoc. This student wants to go the TT route and was looking for my opinion about certain PIs and cities, but also asked me to train them in some protein stuff I know how to do and they don’t, but we have to do it quietly, without raising suspicion because neither their PI nor mine can find out we’re training them, even thought their defense proposal has been accepted and they’ve been told to start writing. It brakes my heart that we both have to resort to “extreme” hiding measures to make sure this student is prepared for the postdoc, with skills they can’t acquire in their lab but are expected to know for their postdoc. This made me feel shitty because I would like to think that if I was a PI, I’d be thrilled I got to expand someone’s training, even if they weren’t in my lab (but I had a longstanding collaboration with their lab). I guess that’s yet another reason I’m not a PI. I would be a semi-softie and I know I’d have to make hard decisions that PIs have to make in order to keep the money coming and have it spent well. Decisions that while necessary, wouldn’t necessarily help me feel like I was helping the most amount of people. I have a soft spot in my heart for grad students and postdocs. Even though it’s been over 5 years since I finished my thesis and started my one and only postdoc, I still identify with many of their struggles and I want to be as supportive as I can.

I’m happy I get to train students and have an active role in their formation, even though they’re not “my” students. I do refer to them as such, because there are times that we spend long, long hours and see each other more than their PI or labmates.

Let’s see what happens in the coming months.

I dated a Christian Grey once …

******* Trigger warning *******

This entry contains a sexual coercion situation. This is sensitive stuff for lots of us. Please,  I don’t want you to end up in therapy because of whatI wrote. If sexual coercion situations upset you, please read with caution.

*********************************

No, no, not someone into BDSM. Someone abusive …. like Christian Grey.

So, no big secret, I decided to get out from under my rock and read all 3 Fifty Shades over the weekend (honey was our of town for a bit, so that gave me plenty of free time). I’d heard all sorts of comments about it, from love to hate and everything in between.

This is by no means a comprehensive discussion (and I may spoil it for some people); I just want to get some of my impressions out and share some of my thoughts.

I didn’t want to pay for a book that a) was originally conceived as fan fiction of Twilight (and I am against Twilight), b) had been e-published, c) probably depicted violence against a female based on comments I’d read.

Lucky me, I found the pdfs of it and read it on my iPad gratis.

Some aspects of the book I enjoyed, in a weird way, I guess: I’m a brunette, so seeing having one as the main character was somewhat good (but she’s a while brunette, not a latina like me) . She was interested in British Literature, as I used to be (somewhat) at her age. She met her “prince charming” at nearly the same age as I did meet and date my Mr Grey. I did find erotica appealing and the fact that in some way, the main character, Anastasia owned her sexuality, her desires and (eventually, somewhat) asked for what she wanted.

That’s the extent of what I found “positive”. Everything else, from the writing, the plot, Christian’s attitudes and behaviours … it all made me shudder.

Nope, not the supposed BDSM scenes (which I kept waiting for and never really got … sure, a butt plug here, a whip or flogger there … that’s about it). So, the comments I’d read about people turning bright red upon reading the sex scenes were … overrated, IMO. The true problem is Christian’s abusive, manipulative behaviours and the fact that the same “prince charming” crap keeps getting bombarded to us. That we need a man to complete us, to validate us. But above all, that with just love and patience and submission, we can fix what’s wrong if we end up with a physically or (in this case) mentally abusive partner.

Having said all that, and somewhat setting the stage, I want to share my story.

_________________________

In 2001 I was a sophomore in college. I had my life planned out, I was going to start applying for med school in the fall of 2002 and life was going to be awesome. In March or April of that year, at the last minute, I decided to apply for a summer research program out on the East Coast and was accepted. That summer I ended up going to a well known public school in New England and doing a project which I hated with passion. That same summer, I met my very own Christian Grey. He was a bit taller than me, a bit pudgy and very smart. His smarts and looks instantly attracted me and I was taken by his smile. I could see a lot of pain in his eyes and I wanted to heal him, to make him smile for me and for the world (sounds familiar?). We ended up dating for almost a year, then he broke my heart the first time, but we patched things up. I will spare you most of the details, but he was very controlling (what I could and couldn’t wear; my contact with my family (eventually I turned against them)). It all started slowly, with a timid but forceful ‘If you break up with me, I promise you I’ll disappear, you’ll never find me and you’ll never, ever know about my whereabouts and it’s going to drive you crazy’ spiel. But I just shrugged and continued with our relationship. He was the first boy I’d ever let into my heart, truly into it, and I didn’t want to give up on the promise of a bright future (I was 19 at the time and I’d lived a very sheltered existence up until that point, I thought the first man I’d kiss would end up being my husband). We did many things together, from studying for exams (he was in the same school as I was), to going to family functions.

Then the summer of 2002 came about. We ended up in separate states and he promised to visit.

In one of those visits, a friend drove him to the dorm I was staying for the summer. We went out for dinner and then hung out, and because my room had an extra bed, they spent the night there. My sweet Mr Grey slept in my bed and our friend slept in the bed across ours.

We’d ‘played’ with each other, gone almost all the way, but I’d been able to stand my ground and avoid having intercourse. Up until that night.

That night my very own Christian Grey used all his power and charm to subdue me and beg coerce me into sleeping with him. I remember it like it was yesterday. We were in bed fooling around and I was half naked. He drops his pants, drops his undies and starts asking. At first he asked, that he did. Then he used a bit more force. I was still saying no. I said no … so many times. I said no. Eventually, after much begging, bargaining and promises (that we’d get married, that intercourse would help me get rid of my painful periods, ha!), I relented. I said yes. In a soft voice I agreed to let him in. I cried. What convinced me was that he said he wanted to lose his virginity with me. He wanted to be my first and only. He knew that was my weak point. And I relented.

I was in pain. I wanted him out. But I had just agreed to go forth. I couldn’t turn my back, could I? This is the first time I’m openly admitting it. My heart is racing as I type these words … I couldn’t back out. I’d already given my word. Who was I to back out?

I can’t remember how fast things happened. But I remember the tears. I had a bit of pain and discomfort … but more than anything, I couldn’t believe that the special moment I’d been told about by my mom and by movies and magazines had a) gone that fast and b) gone so awry. I wanted hearts and flowers. And I got none of it. I had a friend passed out in the bed across mine, I had a very hormonal boyfriend who had just convinced me by breaking my will, that it was OK and that we’d be OK. That sure, it wasn’t romantic or special, but it happened. I was his. I remember him saying that, I was his, I was all his.

Throughout the year before that night I’d been systematically broken down. He always complained about my big mouth and about not being able to keep it shut when I was with his family. I’d begged him to correct me. I wanted to avoid pissing him off, causing any sort of issues or conflicts. I begged to be disciplined so I could become the perfect girl he wanted. I opted not to wear certain clothes, for fear that he’d have a hissy fit and accuse me of being a slut or of capturing the attention of other guys and make him look like an idiot. Christian Grey did that. His weapons of choice, of power, were his penis .. having sex … and the mind games he played. And it was the same with my Mr Grey.

I eventually learned to like sex, to use it as a weapon to quiet my Mr Grey whenever I pissed him off.

Eventually his promises died. He cheated on me (I only learned about it 3 years after we broke up … but as usual, I suspected it). He eventually got married and I believe he’s had progeny. I pray that his progeny will never meet someone like him. He’s still probably not aware of the damage he did to me or how he broke me down.

I wasn’t aware of it until I learned about sexual coercion and about how I had the power to say no, but I didn’t use it. Because I didn’t know that it was a possibility.

I had all these patriarchal ideas in my head, and that didn’t fit into what I was experiencing. In a way, I felt like I deserved it, because I was being a ‘slut’ in the eyes of my family and my church. I was throwing away everything that was good and wholesome … thus I deserved to have my first sexual encounter be one in which I was coerced, in which there was another person in the room, someone that could wake up and perhaps could have stopped. But I was afraid of disturbing his sleep with my cries.

_________________________

Reading 50 Shades helped me realized that having someone controlling, someone exerting power over you, especially if you’ve not given your consent, is toxic. It is damaging.

I applaud that we’ve made progress into helping women own up their sexuality, say what they want and under what conditions, and hopefully be respected. But I do not applaud the glorification of a control freak, a stalker, as Christian Grey is, and how many of us swoon over this “ideal” man.

My ideal man listens to me, rubs my back when I’m tired, is my nurse when I’m ill. My “prince charming” loves hearing me laughs and hates when I cry, and does everything in his power to make me smile. He cares for me and for our cats. Helps me with the dishes, offers to cook for me, and washes my clothes when I’m out of time. He’s a good, respectful sexual partner and is interested in making me feel like a queen. He doesn’t stalk me, or disrespects me, and would never belittle me … and I am so glad I married him instead of my ex, Mr Grey.

_________________________

This clip is very awesome, and is one of the few that help put everything in perspective when it comes to 50 Shades and how the relationship of these characters is.

Mirena-versary (oh yeah, I went there)

In a couple of weeks I’ll celebrate my Mirena-versary (yes, it’s been almost a year since I got my Mirena in … time flies). Today, the always wonderful Katie tweeted an early FF to moi because … well, I’m always talking about personal business regarding my ladybits (not graphic stuff, but weighing in on Mirena and other forms of birth control). And her tweet reminded me also that I haven’t updated my blog regarding how things have been going with Mirena since way back in Sept of 2013. So, here’s a short and sweet post on how has my year been since I had Mirena inserted.

Around this time last year I’d been mulling over trying Mirena. I’d turned 32 the month before and was working hard in my lab when a convo with one of our trainees about birth control sparked my interest in trying progesterone-only BC. Mirena is a T shaped form of BC that is inserted in your uterus and through a variety of mechanisms, which include: thickening of the cervical mucus (making it harder for the little swimmers to get close to the egg), possible suppression of ovulation, and thinning of the lining of the uterus, prevents unplanned pregnancies. Mirena does this by slowly but surely releasing a synthetic version of progesterone locally and can stay put for about 5 years. There are other types of T-shaped BC rods, including Paraguard (ie., the copper one), and Skyla, which is similar to Mirena, but lasts for 3 years instead of 5. (And no, I wasn’t paid to say any of the above, just pointing out some of the details which may be relevant to us biologists).

At the time I went to the women’s clinic at work, I had no idea that Skyla even existed. Had I known that, I would have opted for it, not only because it is slightly smaller than Mirena, but because instead of 5 years, I could have had it in for 3 and have it taken out by the time hon and I may consider having a spawn of our own (no, I do not refer to my nephew as spawn, he’s the most adorable little boy ever … I like to have a fun outlook on a possible 27 and a PhD baby). The deductible would have been the same ($30), but it would have been a lower cost to my insurance and should I decide to take the Mirena out before the 5 years I’d feel like I’d wasted $$, even if my deductible was the same.

Anyway, after the initial shock of having my OB measure the inside of my ladybits and poke me a bit, the Mirena went in and after a bit of bleeding I got a break, and then spent about a month spotting. I did feel the discomfort of the instruments even though I was given a local anesthetic because I can’t take most painkillers. And I felt discomfort the first night and had a bit of a headache but it slowly went away.

Sometimes I think I feel/know when I’m ovulating because I feel as if something was breaking (more of a popping) inside of me, in my abdominal area. One OB I saw as a student said that some women report this and that it may be possible to feel the follicle releasing the egg. Usually after this “popping” I get some discomfort and two weeks later the red gates open and I’m miserable.

With Mirena, I was spotting for a month, then things normalized a bit and I was able to sort of predict when my period would start. During my next two periods I would spot, but the periods were definitely less heavy than … well, ever, and I didn’t have to take painkillers as much as I’d doing. I did hang around a bit with my heating pad as I was afraid that at any point I’d have my period and cramps show up … but thankfully that never happened. My mood didn’t deteriorate, my breasts didn’t feel any different, in general, it was how I remember my 2nd or 3rd period happen before I started getting the cramps from hell.

My OB showed me how to feel the threads that are supposed to hang out of the cervix. And honey did report at some point feeling something poking a bit, but nothing major and certainly it didn’t impair his …. performance.

Before our wedding, I did go back to the OB to have my threads checked because I couldn’t feel them. Turns out the threads sometimes curl up and are difficult to feel. I then (as always) shared my experience with the lady scientists on Twitter and a few of them said that they don’t even check them anymore … so I guess it depends on your OB. The threads can be a bit stubborn, but you don’t feel them, I promise.

I had my last period sometime in February and since then, I’ve been period free. Yes, you read it right. PERIOD. FREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE. This is truly a state of bliss.

I remember when I was grad student and I first saw the ad for (I think) Seasonique and it mentioned that you could have your period 4 times a year. I was appalled and I thought, hell, I ain’t doing that! But as I got older it dawned on me that all the suffering, the missed work days, the cramps, the breast tenderness and pain, they all could have been gone years ago! I wasn’t sexually active at that time and felt silly suppressing my period. Ignorance was not bliss.

I think Mirena works well for me and if asked, I’d tell all ladies to forget about the pills and go with an IUD. For me it’s proven safe, effective, non disruptive and I don’t have to worry about forgetting to take a pill or making a quick stop at the pharmacy for a condom.

But above all, beyond preventing an unplanned pregnancy, what makes me a believer is that I haven’t had cramps in almost a year. And, for me, that’s unheard of. I’ve had to miss work because I’ve had a cold or a medical procedure, but not because of my period. I honestly wish I’d made this decision 10 years ago.

For me, an IUD has been a life saver and money saver. I haven’t had to purchase pads in a LONG time, and the other day when I had a headache, I couldn’t even remember where I’d put my acetaminophen!

*** If you want to follow the conversation on IUDs, other forms of BC and ladybits, click here. And last but not least, you can read about IUDs and how they are most definitely NOT an abortifacient as the scientists of the Supreme Court and Hobby Lobby want you to believe. Oh wait … Hobby Lobby and the Supreme Court don’t have scientists … they are NOT scientists.

Dear Science Career Blogs … no. Just … NO

Today the always awesome Dr Becca and DrugMonkey (and a bunch of other awesome tweeps) noticed this little gem from our frenemies at Science Careers: http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2014_07_21/caredit.a1400184

The gist of it is that one little study at one university apparently found that if you think positive thoughts, not only can you handle stress better, you can magically fix the world, end hunger, solve the conflict between Israel and Palestine and end global warming!!!! Insert sarcasm here.

Look, I’m all for having a wonderful outlook and all. I know that a positive attitude can help in overcoming difficult situations.

What bothers me tremendously is that the way things are phrased in the little gem above, it makes it sound like postdocs have the answer to solve ALL their issues and that it’s in their hands to fix everything with just a tiny attitude adjustment.

This couldn’t be further from truth.

I’m not the only disgruntled doc here. But since it’s already past my bed time and I’m battling the beginning stages of a cold (and I’m lazy beyond belief), I’ll do Science Careers a big fat favour and point out to some of my most downward ass posts from 3 years ago.

See here, here and here. Apologies for the shameless self promotion, but like I said, my nostrils and sinuses are filled with yuck and I’m too lazy to link to others.

You see, Science Careers, thinking happy thoughts it’s all fine and dandy, until you find yourself in a horrible situation, with an abusive PI, or a bully labmate (like I did, the labmate, not the PI, thankfully, though I did see one of the PIs in my former PD department beat the shit out of a postdoc, emotionally speaking). Or you or your significant other are let go of the lab because the funding dried up and none of the 1500 grant applications you wrote and the endless nights of running FPLC columns, or counting fishies or measuring how high bunny rabbits jump, added up to 0 because the lab can’t keep running without money. Happy thoughts can totally help you console your sick child, help deal with your cancer or that of a loved one, or help you deal with death, divorce or marriage. You just have to find your happy place, cross your legs and think of how come you’re still in a dead end postdoc, in year 4 with 0 publications and you’re dealing with a sexist collaborator, or department head, or an ultra competitive postdoc and just breathe in and let it all go.

Truly, SC, truly. That is a bunch of bull.

Thinking happy thoughts didn’t save my dying friend, or helped me pay my bills, or drove my husband to the ER during a panic attack. Happy thoughts didn’t help shit when I was being bullied by the star student of the lab. Happy thoughts didn’t keep me fed and clothed, let alone warm during cold Canadian winters.

You know what kept me alive? A supportive husband (then boyfriend), friends from home that kept in touch, Skyping with my mom while witnessing my baby nephew grow in front of a camera. Whatever kind of career counseling I could get, be by the school or by a support network built on Twitter.

Those things kept me from jumping off of my apartment’s balcony on the 11th floor.

Not happy thoughts.

So, I hope you can pat yourself on the back for telling postdocs (current and prospective) that all they have to do is man/woman up and think positive thoughts. That that is all it takes to deal with stress. And that those happy thoughts will magically bring food to the table, a dental plan, retirement accounts and savings. They totally will (insert major side eyes here by me and a bunch of my tweeps).

Do. NOT. Be. A. Creep. You, idiot!!!

Early in the morning today (too early to be exact), I had a convo with my husband re: nerds and creepy people. We were talking about whether when we were in school, we knew someone like Howard or Raj (from Big Bang Theory), or a creepy nerd. We talked about how we tried to be nice to everybody (though 16 yrs have passed since we left high school … oh dear God), but we probably were assholes at times. Not very proud of that. We couldn’t remember specific examples or Howards or Rajs in our classes … until it hit me. I did have someone like Raj .. and even though 16 years have passed, it still creeps me out.

The story goes like this:

I was 17, and we were near the end of our last semester in high school. School had approved a local reggae band to play at school for a day-time celebration and we were able to dress casually (uniforms were the norm). I remember wearing my “cool” jeans, my sunglasses, sandals and a cute little tee with some design in aqua. All I remember is the colour. Anyway. We took our classes, and after that, the band assembled in the yard and started playing. The way my high school was built, it had an inner yard surrounded by classrooms, offices and the cafeteria. There was this big tree that blocked the view from one side to the next and on the top level of our school, the were hand rails … giving the look of a balcony surrounding most of the inner yard.

Long story short, the band starts playing, we start dancing in little groups. I had a biggish group of friends and we made a circle and danced and it was all in good fun. For whatever reason, even though I’m very absent-minded, I noticed that there was a guy on the top floor with a camcorder (remember those?). I thought he was filming the band, which was popular in those days, and it didn’t bother me much. Until I started paying attention and noticed that every time I went out into the yard to dance with my friends, they guy seemed to be zooming in (my sister had the same camera, thus I knew what he was pressing and the motions he had to do zoom in). And when my friends and I moved, the camera moved in our direction.

I noticed that if my group broke down into smaller groups, he seemed to be pursuing the same little group with his camera … and I was always in that little group.

Then it started bothering me.

I remembered that a few weeks before that, we’d had an international celebration/day at school, and I was collaborating with one of my teachers in making a display. At some point I walked out of the classroom to get some fresh air and wait for some glue to dry and the guy that had the camcorder the day of the reggae band was waiting to talk to the teacher that I was helping. I’d seen the guy before. He was friends with some friends but we never hung out in the same group. He was a bit of a car nerd, and while I did like cars and nerding about them, I didn’t hang out with his all-male clique. I stroke up a conversation with him, very short and was able to sell him a chocolate bar to raise funds for our international day celebration. I can’t remember if I was flirty, or anything. I don’t think I was. Plus, guys in school didn’t find me particularly pretty (I was a geek, recovering from years of having acne and wore too-high socks), so I had no inkling that our little convo over him buying a chocolate bar would give him any sort of ideas that I was interested in him.

Whatever.

Fast forward two months, and the reggae band is playing, creepy chocolate guy is recording our group of friends with his handheld camera and I ask one of my friends to tell me what she notices if I hide behind a wall at school. I start dancing with her, and slowly walk behind the wall. My friend keeps dancing until the song ends, and I’m hiding and she says that creepy guy lowered his cam. When the next song begins, I walk out to dance with my girlfriend, and the camera goes up. This goes on and on for the rest of the mini-concert.

At one point I was so bugged that I stopped dancing and just hid behind the wall so he couldn’t record me. Eventually my friends and I switch places to another part of the school yard where there’s the big tree I mentioned earlier and the guy gives up. But I had to get on top of a bench at school, hide behind a big tree so he couldn’t find me, let alone film me.

And it dawned on me … this guy was a major creep that felt entitled to film me, to record my every move on a casual dress day at school for God-only-knows what purpose. I felt dirty, creeped out, used. I still feel it to this day.

My husband couldn’t believe it.

And this was not illegal (probably isn’t to this day either) back in 1999. It would have been dismissed as just a boy thing.

But I felt like my privacy, my right to be a regular 17-yr old, dancing with her friends to the rhythm or a popular reggae song was invaded.

I felt dirty, disgusting for inciting those desires in another 17 yr old (I was extremely conservative at that time, as in, if the guy was filming me it was probably for dirty purposes and I’d be going to hell for (in Duggar parlance), defraud him).

———

There are many issues in the story I have shared. From how the very patriarchal culture I grew up in made me feel guilty for being a regular 17-year old girl who just wanted to have some fun with her friends while in a school function that had been approved by the principal and teachers.

This same patriarchal society that protected this young man. I’m sure that if I’d opened my mouth, my teachers would have just shrugged and said that in 4 more months I’d be in college and that I could forget all about it and just dance.

I then remembered how one of my oldest cousins had to have campus police escort her to and from her car and to and from every class when she was in the same college as she was a few years prior, to protect her from the creepy stalker she had.

———

I can’t remember the creepy guy’s name. And maybe that’s good, because I would like to know if he has a criminal record or something for being a creep. I worry about what he did and if he did it to others.

My sense of security felt violated that day. How could I trust that other guys at school, or in college, could keep their pants on and their cameras away from me or my friends?

———

So that’s my creepy story, or memory of the day.

If I had a daughter, I’d make sure she feels comfortable coming forward and saying “hey mom, this happened, can we do something about it?”

If I had a son, I’d say, don’t be a creep, see how this behaviour makes women, or just people feel. It is not right.

To both I’d say that whatever they do, dancing, sharing with friends, going to the movies, whatever it is … they have a right to feel secure, protected, and not be filmed by creeps. They have to be sure that they are safe, and if they are not, they need to speak up, and know that they can and will make friends, or talk casually with someone, and that it is not OK for someone to stalk them, even at a distance, with a recording device. It is wrong and it must be stopped.

———

And now, back to work. I just wish I could take a cold shower.

Fire, mentorship and responsibility

If one is active in the Twittersphere or blogosphere, it is difficult to escape the results of the Sangji/Harran case. I won’t write much about it as it’s been wonderfully summarized by both Chemjobber and Chembark. The more I think about writing on Sangji’s death and how her boss got pretty much scot-free, the more irate I become.

I want to focus on something related which is one of the main messages coming out of this story. That is, who is responsible for what happened and what would be the level of engagement anyone/everyone, especially newly minted BS/BA when they join a lab, be it as RAs or techs (or even in the beginning as PhD students) should expect and are not getting.

A lot of people seem to fault Sheri Sangji for not doing things right. She wasn’t wearing a lab coat, or any other type of PPE, she apparently didn’t read or pay attention to the warnings of the chemical in question regarding flammability, and/or no one was supervising her.

I write as a lab manager, with 5 years of experience post-thesis defense, and over a decade working in a lab full time. These are my thoughts …

In 2001, the first time I ever did research full time in a lab (well, for a summer), I was a naive undergrad. I worked in a lab with a bunch of Russians that played metal pretty loud and were studying protein structure and function. I made many blunders … mostly based on how I saw the lab peeps doing things. I got screamed at by a postdoc because I picked up a DNA gel with my bare hands and it happened to have been freshly stained with EtBr. Yay moron me. He used gloves all the time. But he was freshly off the plane and we had to communicate using less words and more hands. I’d seen every other postdoc and RA in the lab pick up gels like that. Thankfully I only did it once. My “punishment” was to read an entire chapter on the developments of DNA gels, staining and what EtBr did. I learned my lesson, and didn’t get screamed at again (for picking up a gel with bare hands, anyway). It was difficult as I’d been used to getting all the info from textbooks and not from actually doing tests and running assays. But eventually, after lots of practice, of making tons of gels (I made a 70% instead of a 0.7% DNA gel too), I learned my lesson. Wear PPE, never pick up stuff bare handed, and always read the labels. The postdoc watched over me after that. The boss was writing grants in his office.

When I got back home, I burned my face while cutting a DNA gel because I left the UV lamp on too long … another stern lecture. I’m still waiting to develop cancer on my face and hands … I’m sure it will happen. This time, my mentor got involved and I got a bit screamed at. I was though. Also, the next week we had her lecture about the danger of UV rays exposure. I was still burnt.

Eventually, after making lots of blunders, I entered the PhD program at my current university. I had to learn about the dangers of not securing gas cylinders to a wall, or transporting multiple vessels without the proper equipment or enough hands. I learned to read oxygen sensors and to not fear dropping LN2 on myself, but do fear other cryogens, magnets and high voltage equipment. I learned about proper ventilation and the dangers of working in closed quarters, underground.

My boss was busy writing grants, so instead I relied on the lab manager to dispense lab coats, on other trainees to pass around the health and safety info. I got no tests or certifications, nothing. I was never directly observed by my boss. I had to trust the lab manager (he taught me well) and my boss had to trust that the lab manager and other lab members were doing their share of teaching me the ropes. I never questioned why the boss never met with me and gave me a lecture on all the possible dangers I faced in the lab. I just went and did. You can say, but 27, you’re supposed to be independent or at least on your way to becoming a responsible, independent investigator … you should have done your work and asked questions. Sure, dump all the responsibility on the newbie.

As a postdoc, I got a 3hr training on an instrument with the boss, then everything else was left up to me to figure out and if in doubt, talk to the lab manager.

By the time I arrived in NYC I didn’t fear a LN2 spill, but I did fear leaving a vessel open and having the N displace the O and suffocate me or my labbies. I wanted to know how to dispose of chemicals properly. I got a test by the FDNY and got certified. Before that, I couldn’t stay in a lab alone, even if my job titled said manager (it didn’t, thankfully). I had to pass this info to my users and to new lab members. I needed to learn to not mix the wrong kinds of chemicals, of controlling fires and different types of spills. And of not overturning equipment and have it crush me.

Now, as a lab manager, I’m entrusted with doing safety trainings to new users, and retrain old ones if I see that things aren’t right. I watch over them and must assume that all times they’re as ignorant as I was 10 years ago. I haven’t been designated a safety officer … but by default, my bosses trust me with imparting this knowledge to a new crop of grad students and trainees. I’ve done my share of pretty stupid things, and I make sure to mention that to my students, as a cautionary tale. I don’t want them to have burnt fingertips, or splash nasty solutions, or let alone, dispose of something down the drain that shouldn’t. Thankfully I have a few levels of supervision above me and one of them sees what I do after I prepare and SOP or user manual and gives me feedback on how to do things better/safer or the rationale behind those procedures.

I realize, with this whole Harran business, that if someone was to get injured under my care, I’d be the one on the hanger for it. Sure, my bosses may get a reprimand, but if someone dies, is maimed or something explodes or causes a fire, I’m the first line of defense. And that is scary. Because just a decade ago I was a naive student, an idiot who barely knew how to plate and who’s now in charge of peoples’ lives.

It is something I don’t take lightly. Ever. I want my users to be responsible, to be cautious, to do research and still be able to reproduce and have healthy offspring. I want my lab to be funded. But should I carry all the burden of safety and education and GMPs because we’re created this culture where not many PIs are directly responsible for their trainees? This smells a bit like the GM car recall.

I honestly wish Harran had been sent to prison, even if only for a few years. Maybe that would have forced us all to have the uncomfortable discussion of safety, and make sure that our bosses and lab managers, and RAs/TAs and other lab personnel are all on the same page with regards to safety, PPE and who’s responsible for what. Mentorship, for me at least, is not only about churning data, learning to write grants and acquire other skills, it should be about passing good safety and lab policies and training well new generations. It’s about making sure we don’t have dirty hoods, filled to the brim with solutions and reagents that are not compatible. It’s about taking time and making sure we’re good stewards of and for science. How many Sheri Shanji’s will it take to have the Harran’s of the world realize that lab safety is important? And that mentorship isn’t just about admitting people in the lab or checking data integrity or writing money or taking endowed chair positions. Being a responsible mentor means taking care of the whole ship, and that even when you delegate, you still maintain contact with people under your guidance so as to ensure that safety protocols are followed, that certifications are valid, and that all lab operations are up to code. A life cut too short is at least worth that.