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So. Much. Work

Seriously. So much to do. And I’m only one person.

This month has shown me that my poor former supervisor in NYC had it (and still does) tough when trying to get actual research done. This month has been crazy in terms of the amount of work and the amount of admin stuff to do. I’ve had to arrange for a meeting, get the data put together for it, email and call people to make sure they can all attend … all while trying to collect data for 3 projects and  also fixing broken things in the lab. It is a lot of work. I’m having to just say no or book things for other days so I can get some pieces of software functioning. And the days where one of my superiors comes to collect data and calls me a grand total of 15 million times … it’s really exhausting.

But I’m happy in the sense that people (students, postdocs and (hopelly too) their PIs) are seeing what I do and get to see the value of it. Doing some back of the envelope calculations, I’ve managed to increased productivity of one of our toys by more than 50%. And I’ve got a good relationship with the guy who fixes it, so I feel confident in asking him for tips and little things to extend the life of our toys. But I’ve also got two other toys I need to tend to, yet other stuff in the lab seems to be chewing off most of my time. I guess my problem is time management. I feel like sometimes I’m in damage control mode, trying to get the bigger toys to continue churning data day and night, and the poor little guys get neglected. But I’ve got to practice the art of saying no and of saying ‘you know what, today is the little guys turn to get dusted off and have my entire attention … so shush it and let me work on my thing.’ It’s tough though … I feel guilty when I’m not tending to the bigger instruments, then I look at the pile of little things to do and I wonder how can one person do it all.

I did accomplish one great thing today, which will (hopefully) add to the capabilities of our lab. I’m very excited and by the end of the month I’ll have a user meeting to show how this thing works and how can people start using it. It took me a lot of effort and a lot of emails, but I feel confident that we’re in the right direction. And all because of me. Phewww. If I don’t have anything else to feel proud of during the rest of the year, this is the one thing I’m most proud of work-wise.

That’s what’s going on in the life of this lab manager. What’s new with you?

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.

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 :-)

Inadequacies

Four years ago, coming this summer, I had my thesis defense, quickly followed by the start of my postdoc. I remember that around this time 4 years ago, I was sick, writing the second to last chapter of my thesis and still processing data. I was also excited about joining my then boyfriend, now husband, in Canada and *finally* being together. My life seemed to be taking some shape, after being a student for the last 5.5 years. The future looked promising.

But in the back of my head, I still had some lingering doubts. I’d done two postdoc interviews, got an offer out of one, which was in a completely different discipline than the one I’d been trained in. The second interview went well, but I never got a second call. The PI phrased it as, “it’s not you, it’s me. We’re going in a different direction.” I also think he didn’t agree with all the methods we’d developed in my PhD lab to acquire and process data 10X faster than he did. Whatever the reason, I was leaving my PhD discipline behind and embarking in something new and completely foreign to me.

From the start there were signs that things were not going to go well. Most of my labmates had offices in a totally separate part of the building, and it took time to click with some of them. Others embraced me quite easily. I tried not to bother people too much and was flexible when it came to booking instruments. For the first few months I was eagerly learning how to do things and set up machines, mostly from grad students. I don’t remember the boss walking in once to check in on me. He basically left it all to everyone else to show me the ropes. And while some people would be OK with that, I wasn’t. I’d developed what I felt was a good working relationship with my PhD boss and we got along pretty well. I found myself longing for the talks we had about data and coming up with strategies to solve problems together.

Eventually I sort of  grew into the rhythm of things. But I still longed for a lot of the things I had before, not only boss-wise, but lab-wise. I was stuck with a relentless bully. I was having to work on most Fridays later than everyone else, so I could work alone and not justify or be questioned by everyone and their neighbour as to why I was loading my gel like that, or why I was preparing the buffer this other way. I was tired, listless. And honey recognized the depression, the feelings of desperation, anger, frustration. The imposter syndrome was kicking into high gear.

I was able to escape that situation and found my first job as a staff scientist in the wonderful city of NY. It wasn’t easy at first. I was scared of the city, but mostly of whether I could do science after a horrendous postdoc that ended in 0 publications. I felt like a failure. Who goes into a lab and doesn’t even get into the acknowledgements, all while her fellow postdocs and grad students are publishing left and right? What was wrong with me?

I’m still looking for some of those answers. But last year, I realized, that perhaps I wasn’t THAT much of a failure after all. After collecting data for a prof in NY, a paper came out, with my name included in the list of authors. Granted, there were about 10 different authors, mostly because the project had switched hands at various points. But that little paper published in a GlamorMag-type place (well, one of its offshoots) started to give me some of my old confidence back. I felt that I was doing something worthy and that my efforts had landed me in that list of authors. That those days spent in the cold, looking at a screen for hours, waiting for results and then the ensuing long sessions of data processing, landed me there.

But that was only the start. Late last week I got an email from another Glamor-type Mag, in which again I was in the author list, notifying us that the paper had been accepted, no corrections, no third reviewer crap about this ONE more essay the MUST be conducted to maybe accept the paper. I was reading that email on my way to work and a little happy scream and dance ensued. I’m sure people thought I was nuts. Whatever. I finally felt vindicated. In the two years I’d been in NY, TWO papers had come out bearing my name. Countless other projects there had also my touch on them, most which would never make into a publication … but those two, those beautiful papers, have given me so much hope that maybe there aren’t that many things wrong with me. That perhaps it was a combination of multiple factors that led to me having 0 papers out of postdoc-land but that in the same length of time I was in that lab, I got two papers out of my previous position. I was glad, and humbled. And I was pinching myself. I felt, I feel, vindicated.

I should remember this feeling in the future, when equipment breaks, or when I’m having a hard time training someone. I am enough and I can do great things … if I’m in the right environment. Cheers!

Be kind to those who stay behind … and those who come after you

This business of being a lab manager? Yeah. Real tough here, real though. I feel close to the students (in age and, sometimes, maturity) yet I’m not one of them. I can hang out with them when I’m outside the university walls … but I cannot badmouth their asshole PI(s). Just to be clear … most of the students (and the occasional postdoc) I’ve dealt with thus far, and their PIs seem pretty sane. But there’s this PI (who I mentioned in my previous post) who will give me headaches … and this person is the reason behind trying to set some boundaries for myself so that I don’t give them the impression that a) I’m slacking off because I decide NOT to work on a weekend like people in their lab do, and b) let this person understand, very clearly, that  I’m not one of their students or postdocs. Things have gotten a tiny bit better, but for every step forward, we go 3 more backwards. It’s a work in progress.

Besides that, one of the tasks at hand now is to make sure that when we open the lab, it is ready to receive people and be in good (safe) conditions. This lab I’m working on used to be BSL2 lab. Some pathogens (mostly inactivated ones) were worked on here, and while the previous group cleaned up some stuff, it seems as if every time I open a shelf or drawer, there’s some … “surprise.” I went looking for some hazardous material tags the other day … and all of a sudden I find some corroded shelf with bleach and some other stuff, and no sign of the bags … well, they were there, but there was a mess. There’s also a mysterious (and kinda scary)  -20 freezer that has samples from the early part of this century ie. from more than 10 years ago.

It had been my understanding that when the previous tenants of this lab were here, they had cleaned up everything, disinfected surfaces and gotten rid of all the samples and crap. Pretty much no one paid attention to freezers and other sample storage area, just to pumps and other mechanical stuff that other labs were eager to get their hands on. And now I’m stuck with a bunch of machines that don’t work, that environmental health has to cart away, and I have a couple of PIs over my shoulders, saying that it is my responsibility to clean up the lab and make it pretty for when they new users come. Yeah, that in addition to preparing samples, writing standard operating procedures for everything that has a switch or a light of some sort and stock it full of pretty little things for their trainees to play with, I need to clean up the lab. Now, I probably sound like a baby … but it is a lot of work that I have to get done … and it must be done by myself alone as no one else will pony up time to help or sort through things. I know, I know, I signed up for this … but it is truly a pain that the previous tenants only cleaned up the surface of things and left everything else to be taken care of by the new tenants. I think it’s pretty inconsiderate. Also, it makes me wonder why environmental health (or if) they have some sort of procedure for situations like this. If they’re supposed to certify labs, then I wonder if someone is slacking off somewhere.

This business is tough, and I’m the face of my lab, according to all sorts of letters and emails circulating amongst my gazillion bosses. I’m glad to make this lab look awesome, but it takes time. So, I beg you dear reader, should you be a PI or fellow lab manager and are about to move elsewhere, take time to walk around the lab and make sure that everything has been properly disposed of before you leave. Make sure things are bagged and tagged. I don’t know if you get charged or not, but please don’t leave your previous lab space looking like a pig pen. It is not a nice, or safe practice, especially for those before you. And for the love of all that is good and wonderful, have some policy as to what happens to reagents and crap people need to make to get their science done and they leave. Whether is not signing off on their thesis until they’ve bagged and tagged stuff or have at least left some record of where the samples are and are mindful of stuff they may leave behind .. have something in place to take care of the insane amounts of buffer or reagents that accumulate through the years. There’s nothing better than seeing a semi-legible tag on something and find out that it’s from 4 generations of grad students before your time. NOT!

Now, off to clean and cart stuff off. Ugh

Boundaries and priorities

I’m feeling much better, compared to when I posted this. I went to my initial visit with a new PCP in new job city and it went well. In fact, I didn’t want the visit to end. The doctor is about my age, female and explained everything in detail and in a reassuring manner and tone which was super helpful. She asked about all meds I’ve taken and what I needed refills for and I’m happy to report that I’m back on my PMS med and, while still adjusting, I feel like it’s making a change. I know, it’s a bit too soon to celebrate and it could all be related to having my period (which usually sours my mood even more a few days before and once I get over the initial cramping, it’s all smooth riding). But I am glad I’m back on my med. I’m also seeing her in about a month to get my annual pap-smear and I just learned that school offers free mammograms to staff, so maybe I should take advantage of that … even though it’s not necessary at my age, I would still like to have some sort of baseline and just check that everything is normal.

Thinking back to how I felt on Thursday and Friday night, I felt so defeated. I’d spent Monday, Thursday and Friday working non stop trying to get some preliminary data for a project. One of my many supervisors (I have more than one, all with similar opinions on some things but most definitely different priorities) needed some data and I agreed to give it a shot. What I should have said and remembered based on my experience from NYC, was that this would really be very tough to work on, especially with only a month to really evaluate things. Little by little I became more aware of the mounting difficulties and finally on Friday, something broke in the lab, and that was definitely the end of trying to collect the data for said grant. My next supervisor in line is somewhat of a nazi. In the month or so I’ve been at work he’s already caused problems that have found their way into my ears and I’ve really come to know that this will be a very difficult person to work with (I already told hon I regretted coming back based on the bit of drama this person initiated). My other PI is very chill, though can be demanding. This person is also very hands off and seems to have respect and trust in my abilities. As long as they intervene I can keep doing my job just fine … but who knows how much this person can protect me and how long they can be that way without getting their asses in trouble.

Here’s the thing … in NYC my immediate supervisor absorbed a lot of the heat if my coworker or I got in trouble. But here I am all alone and I am in the same position as my supervisor, and the lab I’m working in is in worse shape than I thought. And there are things I don’t know how to do and I’m learning … but nazi PI wants them done yesterday. And that has caused a lot of trouble and stress I wasn’t ready for.

Now, my husband is kind of a genius, but sometimes can say things too bluntly and in his interest to preserve my sanity and well-being, he can get riled up. So he’s trying a new strategy of communicating his concern for me,  and it’s sort of working. On Friday night we were talking about how much of a frustrating day I’d had. Not only did I have to see my PCP and try to work on the prelim data, but I also had to work with nazi PI and make sure that some plant services people fixed something in the lab. In other words, I was being stretched to my limit .. and I was running low on patience, plus I was feeling a little (or a lot) out of it … I was out of my mood med and I didn’t know it, but my period was rearing its ugly head. It was the perfect storm. I spent exactly 12 hours at work trying to fix problems, either on the phone, in person … hell, I even emailed a coworker to place an order while my doctor was getting some paperwork done outside of the exam room!! In what world is that acceptable? Couple that to the fact that I’m supposed to have a 40-45 min break during the day (by law, if the uni found out I didn’t take  it I could get in trouble) … all while trying to remain sweet and competent.

By the end of the night I was shot. I was looking at my blog stats and saw that more people kept coming, that more people were following on Twitter … and that while both the blog and Twitter are great outlets, I just didn’t have time to sit down and write my story …. this, plus all the bullshit at work, plus the PMS combined to make me feel down, depressed … like I was out of hope. My incredible super husband came to rescue, reminding me that I had to set boundaries and rules, that it is OK to take time to enjoy these outlets, that I’m better and more relaxed when I take time to focus on myself and that if my PIs have my best interest at heart, they’ll understand that you can’t keep going 24-7. And that yes, I have a laundry list of things to do to keep the lab running … but it’s not a sustainable model to stay in the lab for 12 hours straight, most days of the same week, having worked for 13 days before that non-stop. The way he said it sounded different than other times. Other times he’d let his frustration out and I felt like he was picking a fight, rather than being supportive. He said that talking with his mom had given him the idea to approach things differently … and it did go differently and it did sink in.

In NY my lab stayed open from 9 to 6. Sometimes we’d stay late and I did stay overnight one time. But, it wasn’t the norm, and I didn’t go to the lab on weekends. There were clear boundaries for the times I was expected to work. Here, since the lab is getting off the ground, there’s a lot of stuff to do and make happen … lots of things I’m trying to figure out … all while keeping 3 bosses (and counting, I’m sure there are more to come) happy. This is tough and it gets frustrating, because I feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day for me to get everything done (I’ve been texting my supervisor in NY, telling him how much more I appreciate all he did for me and for the lab). But now that I’m starting, even if I can’t do everything the overlords want when they want it … to keep some sense of sanity and normalcy, I have to set ground rules as far how much time I can spend at work and what gets solved while I’m there. One of my new job resolutions is to let people know that they can expect to have me present from 9:30am to 6pm, 5 days a week. That I am more than happy to help, but they have to let me know, I have too many things on my plate to just dump everything and come to their rescue at the last minute. I will try my best not to work on weekends, while keeping my cell phone at hand, should someone encounter a problem. I realize that I’m the first line of defense when it comes to instrumentation breaking. I promise to get things done and crossed off my to do list as often as I can, and to ask for help. And also to confront nazi-PI, should things ever get as nasty as they seemed to get this week. If I am to make this place work and people be happy and productive, they need to know that I need to have some control and that there are ground rules … otherwise I’m just their pawn … and then the resentment and frustration takes the best of me.

I also plan to stick to going to the torture chamber (g-y-m), eat a bit better and listen to the hubs when he tries to help out. I’m feeling much better, despite of the coming challenges I’m facing this week. We shall see how things go. Thanks for staying put and for your encouragement.