27 and a PhD

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Monthly Archives: June 2014

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.


It’s been forever since I last wrote something.

Ever since the incident with my boss, I’ve been keeping busy and making sure that everything I do is well documented, so as to avoid getting k3rned by them.

But something that a friend posted today reignited all those feelings of frustration. See here:

The lovely fianinros wrote what I couldn’t very well articulate back in April. See, I’d been given the impression that I was doing things right, keeping the boat afloat and then when I got feedback from my department, my boss had all these complaints about me and my work. I felt like I’d been stabbed in the back and I felt like I was out of breath for a week. It’s was terrible. Then, during a meeting last week, the darned PI took credit for something I’d remarked a month before! I mean, seriously. It wasn’t a big deal (the type of info they informally took credit for), but I felt like I’d been stepped on, yet again. See, this is one of the things we get when we’re staff scientists or research associates, sometimes we have to put our head down and keep going despite having the air taken out of our lungs by the actions of our superiors.

Someone asked on Twitter why we weren’t looking for another job.

It’s a multi-pronged situation, you see. I haven’t been here long enough to make a mark. I’ve already been in a situation where publications didn’t come out of my efforts (ie, the postdoc from hell). Despite what some may thing, publications, even if you’re the 17th author, are still currency for staff scientists. Not only that, but because I’ve moved on to bigger and “better” things, there are certain milestones I would like to accomplish that I hope will give me more leverage to negotiate a better offer in the future. I’m going to a conference in the fall and I’m hoping that by that time there will be papers out (or at least submitted) that I can use to attract some attention and put out feelers and see if I happen to land somewhere else. So for now my strategy is to keep my head down, be the obedient, submissive sweetheart I can be and slowly plan my exit. In addition, there aren’t that many jobs out there as there were when I got this one, and this one came because a former committee member of mine saw the opening, contacted other faculty and said “hey, let’s see if she’s willing to relocate.” Said former member of my committee knew the types of experiments I was able to perform, but was/is far too removed from the field to truly get a deep understanding of the technical challenges involved in it. I feel a bit bad about leaving this person hanging … but they don’t know all the drama involved in being a staff sci.

It has been frustrating to hit myself against the walls of people who think they are too big, or too perfect, to do anything wrong. And sadly, I’ve developed a taste for proving them wrong but being a bit … confrontational about showing them where they messed up.

We had a PM done in one instrument recently and while talking with the service person about the challenges of being at the helm (for only some things) of a lab, he casually mentioned that I should totes apply for a job in his company. But his company doesn’t have any openings and the two geographical areas where the company has plants are too far from anywhere I’d like to be.

But, I keep, we keep, moving forward despite facing challenges and even sexism at times, because we love the research. Isn’t that what all PIs have to do when dealing with admin BS, or institutional stupidity?

I am committed to my job, mostly because of future prospects. But it is disheartening to encounter attitudes that extinguish your fire for a field one loves. Yes, people are difficult to deal with .. but honestly, it shouldn’t be this complicated.