27 and a PhD

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On not being a student

Even though I’ve been away from school for over 2 years now (it feels like it’s been longer, somehow), I sometimes catch myself thinking and doing things as if I was still in school. Even as a postdoc I did things like a student would do. It’s starting to bother me, especially now that I have a “real” job.

I’ve (mostly) always followed the rules. If a set of rules at school said that I was not supposed to touch something, I wouldn’t do it, for fear of enraging the principal or teachers, but especially because I didn’t want to have my mom and dad on top of me lecturing me about not doing stuff. Or when I was younger, avoiding my dad’s wrath and the ensuing physical punishment. Hence why I’ve never been arrested. But, I have many issues.

Anyways, that behaviour has kept me out of trouble for the most part and has kept me from ruining pieces of equipment or setting the lab on fire (because I’ve forgotten most of my chemistry). When I was in school, I would ask for permission to do everything. That also went on as an undergrad, a grad student, and later, a postdoc. I would ask for permission from the lab tech (and drive her crazy), from the boss (boss, can I run the fancy pants, uber-expensive, piece of awesome science equipment? for the third time woman, YES). I read the student (and grad student) handbook a gazillion times. I read the thesis instructions (for writing and submission) a million others, and I complied with everything, making the thesis-reviewing lady happy. I have a very boring life, always following the rules. I honestly fear upsetting people, and becoming “that” person dreaded by all the office staff.

Now that I’m starting to finally feel like a grown up, I still keep asking for permission, and in the process, drive some of the labmates, and office people a bit nuts. Take for instance this situation: when I was in grad school I’d never even dream of touching the school letterhead fancy paper or envelopes, even though they were there for all to see and take. I’d ask the secretaries and they gladly gave me some sheets and envelopes. Now, at work, I walk into the office and sheepishly ask the secretaries if I can take the fancy envelopes and pens, and they give me this look of “girl, get your act together, you’re a coworker, get them yourself, don’t bother me with such nonsense!”

Again, I want to avoid being trouble and upsetting people, but it seems that my student-like attitude is hurting people’s perception of me, and their willingness to help, more than helping.

I ask you, have you ever felt like this? Were you pretty independent and didn’t have a care about bothering office personnel or coworkers asking permission or did you find some sort of balance between asking and simply doing?


Being nice to the coworkers (trying anyways)

I love this time of the year. I really do. For whatever reason twinkling lights, hot cocoa and warm clothes make me smile. But co-workers … sometimes they get on my nerves.

I’ve counted .. there are (at least) 15 people in our lab. There is equipment open for a few of them at any given point, but there aren’t enough of two important things for pretty much any biomedical lab … micropipettes and gel apparatuses (and gel combs and plates). This was especially evident this week. I was purifying yet another batch of protein when I found myself short of the 2 things mentioned above. One of my co-workers, who is a nice guy, but can get on people’s nerves, was making a batch of at least 8 gels. He and an undergrad assistant he has run gazillions of experiments every single week. This is not bad, given that the guy has spent at least 5 years in school and has no papers or conclusive evidence pointing to a way out of the chaos. Some new experiments he is running are working now so he and his assistant are in turn purifying tons of proteins and making a gazillion gels to view their results. Nothing wrong with this picture so far … except that as I stated before there are at least 15 people in our lab, and at any given point 14 of them are running experiments that require the use of some of the same equipment he’s using.

I try to be understanding. I try to be good, not get on his way. But two things almost sent me off to the psych ward this week. First, he and his assistant needed to run 8 gels in 2 days. Nothing wrong with that other than we are 2-3 weeks away from finishing the semester, undergrads and grad students (and all of the postdocs, including me) in the lab are trying to run as many experiments as possible, as fast as we can so we can go on and take time off without feeling guilty. Now, all those other 12 people (excluded are the boss, said co-worker and the assistant) need to run similar experiments, or at least run gels. Another post doc, noting that said grad student was making all the gels he could, asked is he could pour him one or two for later use this week, since the grad student would be taking all the materials available to pour gels. I tried to ask him for one, to no avail. He said something akin to “sorry, but y’all have to wait till I feel like it.” Luckily my purified protein could wait for a few days at the fridge while some materials became free. Since I’m trying to purify one protein per week and the purification I’m currently running is fast, and the protein is mostly stable I had no trouble. But image what would have happened had this been the last experiment separating me from my defense. I would have gone ballistic. The second thing that set me off is that not only this guy, but pretty much everyone else who was running experiments had taken all the available pipettes and were not returning them to the designated area where we keep them. I go and “steal” one from another co-worker, then said grad student wants to take it from me although he had one already. I caught him, said “dude, you get to use it when I’m done, which will be soon, but I already took it from someone else and will finish with it soon, so wait.” He complained that he needed it, and another postdoc came to the rescue. I was a bit mortified by the lack of respect. I had just taken the stupid pipettor, why couldn’t he just wait? Anyways, things were sorted out eventually.

I have no trouble waiting while something in the lab becomes available. But for a few weeks now I’ve noticed that said student takes as much time and space and resources to make sure his experiments are running while everybody else has to wait or shift things around. Now, I’m fairly new still, and I’m still learning my way around things, but it irritates me when I have to wait many hours, or even days to have to run a stupid gel. Something that in ~3 hours could be done and over with. What irritates me the most is that we have sign up sheets for most everything else, but not for gels, or related equipment or materials. I’ve been toying with the idea of asking the lab manager to get one, or for us to discuss having a limit on how many gels a person can pour per day when it’s crunch time and everybody else has to wait while one person runs 6 gels … really, the same person has been using at least 3 distinct gel apparatuses. It’s not fun. The worst part is that because this massive back up is formed by having several of us waiting to run a gel, it goes haywire when the gel materials become suddenly available. You should have seen how many gels were at various stages of staining or de-staining last Friday. It was monumental.

I guess I needed to vent. It’s also that a) I’m not used to juggle so much to get my experiments done, b) previously, in my old lab there weren’t that many people, thus the wait times where not huge, and c) I had PMS … so imagine what a week that was.

This week I’ll try to stay calm. I’ll try to voice my concern(s) in a respectful manner if the ocassion arises, but mostly, I’ll try to stay leveled and be thankful for having a job. I figure that there will be times when even your favorite person on the planet will get on your nerves, but anything you say or do to “spoil” their experiments will backfire, so better stay calm, breathe and let things flow, and only vent in the privacy of your house, because you never know how a meltdown might hurt you. Till next time, happy research!