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Training peeps

Besides collecting a LOT of data for my PIs, one of the other hats I get to wear as a lab manager is the training one. Before I arrived in the lab, people had been somewhat trained by the senior peeps in my PIs labs, but some of them moved on right before I started, so I was handed over the task of observing and retraining people and standardizing procedures so that when something breaks we’ll know (or try to) what happened, on what step and what was not done (or what was done in weird way).

That gives me a break in the sense that I don’t have to spend every waking moment in front of an instrument (well, not every waking moment, but you catch my drift) and instead I get to sit back and show the tricks of the trade to a newer generation. Most people have a pretty good knowledge of the instrumentation, and how to get going, so I do give them a few pointers, then let them go on their way. But new people are also in the labs, especially rotations students and I get to spend some QT with them while they learn.

I have to say that I’m pretty impressed with most of this first crop of rotation students. Most seem enthusiastic and eager to collect data, and like I said before, it frees some of the time once they set up their experiments. I can sit back … and write protocols and procedures for the lab (I truly don’t have much time free these days).

I’ve discovered that I enjoy guiding people through a process, seeing their face light up in amazement when they get to *see* something they’ve heard in class but never witnessed happen. I live for those moments of discovery and amazement. I do like documenting things in the lab too … though one of my (500 million) PIs is too keen on writing everything down … which is a pain because we get into this back and forth corrections loop. But that’s somewhat minor when you compare it to all the other things I get to do.

I’ve collected (what I consider) a ton of data for at least 4 labs now … hopefully some of those will lead to papers in the future. We’ll see. And there may be a collaboration in the works too. We shall see how things flow.

Too busy to write

For the last 3 weeks I’ve been on data collection binge. I’m not complaining. But it is a lot of work. A LOT. And I’m only one little person. I can’t believe how much data collection I need to do. And I am thankful I have the skills to do it. But sometimes it feels like it’s too much. So, I’m designating one day a week a no data collection day (well, at least a day where I’m not parked in front of an instrument for hours on end). It’s OK to help users out, but no data collection. I have more and more admin things that need to be taken care of, SOPs to write, files to upload, people to help write blurbs in proposals and progress reports. And I can’t keep leaving every little thing until the very end, so that I feel even more overwhelmed at the end of the week or month.

A few weeks ago I even got to present something in one of our lab meetings. Since I’m considered part of a few labs (a few PIs pooled their money to help bring me here), I get to attend, and on rare occasions present, little things about the lab, the instruments or new stuff. I got to present a paper on one of our instruments and it was very fun … though I left that presentation until the very end, and didn’t practice it much … something that’s highly unusual for me, given that my PhD boss wanted all presentations, regardless of how informal, to have some level of professional, practiced-quality to them.

I’ve gotten much better since my PhD days (though the ghosts of bosses past are still there) in terms of presenting things to my groups .. but it still worries me, mostly because I don’t want to do a crappy job and I want to show respect to my audience, regardless of how many beers we down when we’re sad or pissed.

On more than one occasion I’ve caught myself saying to honey that I greatly enjoy the work I do. I get to spend more time on the instrument-side of things, compared to NY, and I also have a variety of very interesting projects (lots of receptors and membrane stuff), which is definitely different from my time in the City. I do miss my former co-workers. But I think I’m finding my niche here … regardless of how boring this new job city is (you win some, you lose some, eh!). I feel more grown up than ever before. And I get excited about the science … something which I truly haven’t felt since my grad student days. I guess it’s the different level of involvement I have, compared to NYC.

Overall it feels nice. It’s different, but nice. And I am so happy I took a leap of faith 2 years ago and left the tenure track. But, I’m busier than I ever imagined!!!!

Four months in

Just realized I’ve been at work for 4 full months. It feels as though a lot longer has gone by. The more time passes, the busier I get. And I can totally understand more and more how my poor former supervisor scheduled one thing and ended up fixing others, usually all unrelated to his original plans. Since July started I’ve been troubleshooting tons of things, from computers going down, to electricity problems to taking care of new samples and broken equipment. And I just added one more thing to my list.

Just as I did at my previous position, I have to call people, follow up on quotes and send along specs to people that know a lot more than I do, so they can make a decision. My bosses also recognize my training, so more often than not the 3 of us brainstorm about how to implement things in the lab or how to tackle one of their problems. I’ve had some success in preparing SOPs for equipment in the lab and I’m working now on user policies and procedures, so we can ensure that if something is broken it’s either to a regular malfunction or to a user’s maverick spirit (which we don’t encourage, this shit is expensive, yo!).

On a personal level, hon and I keep getting things in order in our apartment to make it look less like a grad school pad and more like a grown up place. His parents have helped us immensely, buying things like a microwave and beautiful chairs for our dining area. We’re still missing a comfy couch, a dining table and a couple of minor items, but most of the big ticket items have been acquired. We also recently completed prepping our guest room/hobby room and my inlaws are there while in town for a few days. It’s comforting to have them here, we get along pretty good.

Hon and I hope to go somewhere for the weekend in August, as we haven’t had much of a break to get away since we moved from NYC. I’m looking forward to that.

I was finally able to afford changing the tires on my car. There are a few other things to do, but this is good. They weren’t much more expensive than the previous ones were 5 years ago in the same tire shop (woot woot!!).

Each day I feel like I’m gaining more confidence and standing in the lab. I feel that the students like me and my PIs respect me. But I’ve had a few missteps, which I’m hoping won’t weigh in too much when the time for evaluations comes. I guess it’s all part of the learning curve, figuring out how to navigate things, understanding that there are lots of things I can’t control, putting things in order so that my bosses will understand usage and how time is allocated and also collecting quality data to make their lives (and projects) move forward. It is challenging to be a lab manager … very challenging, and so far I don’t have many role models (other than my previous supervisor), so it’s interesting to navigate these waters and figure things out. I hope to compile a list of things I’ve done throughout my first months here .. in case there are other newbies out there like me. But I’m very happy I decided to steer clear of the tenure track and am now on the managerial route.

If you dress nicely …. and other gems

This week has reminded me that there are things, besides being smart and doing awesomesauce science, that appear to matter more, in order for people to take you and your job seriously. First, I saw a former classmate who’s migrated to the clinical side of things and is doing some sort of special clinical postdoc and wears a robe and everything at the beginning of the week. Said classmate (let’s call her Suzy) looked great and very different from her days in grad school, you know, no ragged jeans, Old Navy basic tee, running shoes and a ponytail with a pencil hanging around. Suzy finished around the same time I did and then decided to do a clinical postdoc (didn’t even know these existed) and has been here since then. Apparently she sees patients because her work is related to epidemiology, so she wears a lab coat, has her name embroidered on her coat and gets to wear cute dresses, nice jewelery, make up and lots of Tory Burch flats. I’m happy for her and in a way I sort of envy how she gets to meet patients and dresses like a resident of internal medicine. On the other hand, I do pretty awesome research in structural biology and get to come to work in casual wear, unless I’m presenting or have to meet a high up in the organization (almost never happens).

Suzy greeted me warmly on Monday or Tuesday … can’t remember, and asked why I was back in school. She remember I was doing a postdoc in Canada and we hadn’t seen each other since that time. I summarized what I’d been doing since graduation and mentioned that I’d been head hunted to be a lab manager. She congratulated me and then decided to give me the up and down look. I admit it, I was dressed even more casually than ever (jeans, a teenage looking hoodie and pink sunglasses). Then she questioned why the casual look … as if to say, ‘girl! you’re a lab manager now, get your act together.’ I was so surprised that all I could muster was a ‘great to see you Suzy, we’ll catch up later’ … and quickly walked away to have lunch.

Since that day, her comment has been in my head, on repeat, every few seconds. I remember her being so well put, and me looking so frumpy, and I realize that yes, I am a lab manager … so what? Don’t I get to dress to work in whatever way I see fit to do my job? If my job allowed me to wear a cute dress and flats, by God I would wear those … but I’m in a lab with machines working every day, churning data at all hours and said machines break down. I have to get on my knees and look at stuff. Measure stuff, clean stuff, oil and grease stuff. I have to polish things and dust off others. I have to clean the lab at certain times and in certain ways, so as to not upset the equipment (or risk my life doing it … well, not that serious, but you catch my drift). I don’t see patients. I live in a basement, in a lab, shut off from everyone. I see the light of day when I get out to have lunch and that’s it. Windows covered, doors closed. That’s how I conduct my science.

I’d mentioned before that I do feel bad for dressing like a soccer mom, but at the same time, I feel like I can because I need to get on top of things, crawl on all 4 behind machines, use water, alcohol and nitrogen to work … and I don’t want my nice clothes ruined, or worse … to put my life at risk because I’m afraid of staining something or because I’m wearing something that is not safe.

I do believe that nice clothes help you feel better,  look put together. And trust me, I do clean up nicely. Then I look at my PIs, who wear clothes just as casual as mine … and no one is questioning their science or talent! Not a single person (well, at least that I know of). Is it because I’m a woman (though I do have a female overlord, and she dresses casual too)? Is it because I’m hispanic? Or is it just another way of showing your superiority and that of your discipline? I dress like a peon, you work with patients, thus it’s OK to question my commitment to science based on how I look?

I do have a closet full of nice clothes. Clothes I mean to wear someday, yet when I think of the day ahead and who I have to work with or what samples I’ll face that day and whether or not I need to pH something or make 3 gallons worth of a buffer, I just shrug it off, dust off my jeans and put them on. I don’t mean to say that you can’t dress nice for the lab. I admire people who look put together and get to wear cute AND functional clothes … but in my case, I prefer not to risk them. I do wear a lab coat, don’t get me wrong … but I’ve been known to get stains even when wearing a lab coat … and I hate stains, let me tell ya.

What made me sit down and devote a whole entry to the subject of dressing for work …. what really pushed my buttons was this .. a PI saying to her students that if you dress nice, you won’t be taken seriously. Seriously? I mean, that’s the other extreme of my situation. And I especially dislike said comment because it implies that you have to look like a mad scientist, with you pocket protector and big ass calculator and crazy hair to be taken seriously. What I consider even worse is that a female PI is telling that to her female students! Seriously!! With how fucked up this world is and you have do drill into your minions that if they dress nice they won’t be taken seriously? In Dr. Isis’s wise words … it makes my ass twitch.

Just as bad is when you have to dress in a particular manner because you work with say … human tissue and good God you have to protect yourself from getting infected with whatever … and when you mention you’re done with your work session and your scrubs are covered in yuck, you get assholes saying that that’s not very sexy sexy (check this). Do you mean to tell me that ladies should stay out of the clinic/lab/field because when they need to wear work clothes to ensure safety in their jobs, that wearing less than anything showing skin, or pretty or sexy, those work clothes make them look less than a hot piece of ass? Seriosly?? I’m just throwing my hands up in the air.

I think we all need to reevaluate our priorities and realize that in order to move forward, we just can’t keep judging people based on the way they look, whether they dress nicely because their job requires it or because they can, or whether they need to wear less than “sexay” attire to get down and dirty and do their stinkin’ job, whether that involved removing and replacing pump oil, or collecting lung samples for their research. Please be mindful that comments about what you wear (or not) should have no bearing in your capacity to produce science. We shouldn’t look down at people based on their clothing choice (unless said choice involves offensive messages), whether it’s well put together or “frumpy” … especially when you don’t know the kind of science and effort they have to put it, or the kinds of situations they face every day to get to do their research. So back it off … it’s not nice.

Le job

So, a little while ago I wrote about being a lab manager. For personal reasons I decided not to divulge too many details of what I do to earn mah moolah. But I figured it doesn’t hurt to give some info as to some of the tasks I have and get to accomplish in my new position.

You may be asking yourself, well, how is your life as a lab manager different than as a staff scientist? I find that most days my tasks and responsibilities aren’t too different from when I was in NYC. I get to sit down and talk to users/trainees. We talk about their projects, what they hope to accomplish, what they’ve done, their workflow and whether they want to get their hands wet or rather have me collect data and hand it off to them. This is similar to how things were in NYC, except that there were more hands to hand over a project (including those of my former supervisor) and we met as a group with them, all staff scientists and supervisor, plus our PI. Here I mostly work for a handful of PIs, and it’s just me (for now), so I sit down with the PI, discuss general things about their project and they send me off to talk to their student or postdoc and see how we want to collect data. Most people have had some sort of training before we meet, and they know how to use the instrumentation. But sometimes they’ll say they feel more comfortable with me in the room, or with me collecting the data. I also have newer users who have no idea of how to collect data, and they’ll often sit and observe and take notes, and once the data collection is done, they’ll see what’s up and determine whether more purification is needed or they need to do a different type of column or filtration to get what they need. We also evaluate whether we have is a single population of their entity or if things are falling apart or (sometimes worse) there’s aggregation. Aggregation sucks and we can’t do shite with the protein … so back to the drawing board for my user.

So far I’ve collected quite a bit of data for all the PIs I work for, along with a couple of PIs who want preliminary data. It’s been fun and I like their projects more than I did some of the ones I worked on in NY. Don’t get me wrong, I worked on some pretty cutting edge stuff over there, and a lot of the users were doing a combination of approaches, from X-ray and NMR, NMR and cryo-EM, cryo-EM and X-ray, and sometimes all 3, plus some mass spec and even EPR. But, the topics the lab were studying weren’t as exciting as the ones I’m working on here. I get to work with things I learned as a grad student and in pathways I’m interested. I do try to distribute my time evenly amongst the projects, so I don’t neglect people.

I do my share of admin-type things, from generating instrumentation time use and availability, to meeting with head honchos to decide how to operate the facility and attract new users. So far we haven’t had much luck with the attracting new users thing, but I try to go to talks, approach PIs or their trainees and alert them to my presence so they know they have one more local resource to use.

I try to keep the lab tidy, so I’ve done my share of disposing of really old samples from a couple of grad school generations ago. I found stuff in a freezer with my new on it … WTF!!?? I also have to certify users, make sure instruments work and things are properly calibrated. Thus, once a week I get on the different instruments and perform said tests and report those results to my bosses.

I get to hear complains about people not being able to use something or how something is out of whack. I’m the first line of defense here, so I try to calmly say that the user must be messing up with something and that they need to get their filthy paws out of my babies (not really). But I do get to sit down and talk to people about different processes and how they can more efficiently use instrumentation time. In general, I just try to keep my instruments happy and my users busy with data processing. So far I’ve been very fortunate that things have gone that way. But we’ve had a couple of engineer visits, so they can check when someone messed up, or when a board on a computer died (ugh).

Finally, I get to answer emails and texts before I even make it to school and sometimes on my lunch break. Things seem to go out of whack just as I enter Chipotle. Oh well. This is what I signed up to do. I just hope my bosses are happy and my users churn out papers (with my name on it, of course!). I like being a manager thus far, but the level of responsibility can sometimes feel like it is too much. We’ll see how the coming months go. I may have a 6-month evaluation coming up this fall, but I don’t know. We’ll see how that goes and then I’ll share my outlook on things. 

Thanks for reading!

27 and a PhD: the lab manager

At this time last year I was returning to NYC from visiting my parents, my (then) boyfriend (now husband), and celebrating my nephew’s 2nd birthday. I was happy to be back in NYC. But sad to leave my heart behind. It wasn’t in my mind that one day I’d be working away from NYC as a lab manager.  NY happened and I couldn’t have asked for more. I met top-notch scientists, and I worked along them and their groups to try to elucidate structures, or sometimes make sense of what was happening with their samples. I spent almost two years in the city that never sleeps. Some days were busy, others were meh, but I learned so very, very much. And I couldn’t know it at the time, but the contacts I made and the people I helped would be of great impact at my current position.

I moved from NYC almost 3 months ago. It seems like forever, though I can still feel the city, the people, the streets, food and everything in my mind. I hope to be back, even if only to visit at some point. But this is my new life and I’m slowly getting into a new rhythm. I wake up at 7:30, get my sorry ass to the gym (or as I call it, the torture chamber) and get to the lab before 10am. Most days there are lots of issues to tend to, from broken equipment, meeting new users .. but mostly I’m collecting data for other people … something I did quite a bit in NY. I have to check on the instrumentation once a week and do some performance tests to check that everything is in order. I didn’t do that in NYC, my former supervisor did and I’ve been texting him every now and then to check that I’m doing things fine. I have various bosses, at different levels, and most weeks I meet with one or a couple of them, to go over things like usage, instrument performance, data collection for different groups … etc.

Overall I’m pretty busy, especially now, when it seems as if all of my PIs want data now. It’s not bad. I’m just trying to be cautious and always check in with them to see if my methods of data collection align with what they know and expect. So far the feedback has been positive, and one of my bosses made the comment to one of their trainees that it was a relief to have me here to help collect data. That feels awesome.

I also get to hunt down the people who provide us with quotes, so I can send those to the powers that be and have them place orders. I’ve done my fair share of cleaning, both floors and lab fridges. I’ve tried to do some mingling when I can, as that is part of what I was brought back … to get more users into the facility. I haven’t had to do a journal club yet … since technically I’m part of no one’s lab .. but I do attend some of their lab meetings (and even practice talks) to get a feel for what it is that I am collecting data for. Some people argue that it is isolating, but I actually like it, as I am not bound to a single lab, yet get to work on a variety of projects and samples, which I believe to be a positive thing for my CV and my careers.

In general I really like what I do. But I am scared to death of making big decisions. And though I am not shy about voicing my opinion, it is weird to be though of as an expert in my discipline. That is still shocking to me.

That’s it for now. Do you have any questions about being (or becoming) a lab manager?

Finally had time to write

Not much. Just popping my head to say that I’m alive and well. Have dropped 10lbs in 8 weeks, which is good. But I have a loooong way to go. And it’s getting harder to get out of bed and get my lazy ass to the gym. It’s even harder avoiding snacks, such as brownies, my favourite, since there’s a cafe that sells them just down the lab. Grrrr. Trying to stay strong.

I may have mentioned it on Twitter and perhaps here … my mind is currently all over the place, but a second (and possibly the last) paper out of my previous position is coming out soon. It’s in a journal with a big name, though not a C/N/S one. It’s so exciting to see the fruits of my labour, along with those of the first and senior authors who worked really hard to get a compelling story out the door. I was happy and humbled by the publication, given my not so stellar record during the postdoc. That makes this my 8th publication. Or I should say, the 8th publication in which I appear in the list of authors. I definitely did something good in my first iteration as a staff scientist. And each and every paper, or poster or whatever that comes out and bears my name, makes me happier and more convinced that my postdoc experience was something out of the norm and that though I may take my sweet time to accomplish certain things, I do get it done and do make valuable contributions to science. My hope is to be in a 9th paper, at least in the works, by the end of this year. I was told by my bosses that they hoped I’d be an author, should I help them collect data (which I have … tons!), since they believe it’s important for my name to keep getting out there, for people to notice me, and us and my place of work. We all hope to make this lab a known (and respected facility) .. to attract more talent, and funding and to make sure we can afford the service contracts on our toys.

I hope to write some more about my impressions as a lab manager in a few weeks. Stay tuned! And have a great weekend :-)