27 and a PhD

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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

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The day I became ‘previous studies in our lab …’

I knew it would happen, I knew my name wouldn’t be first on papers and posters, or referenced fully at some point. The day came, it is here, upon me. I’ve officially become the ‘previous studies in our lab/by our group/previously we showed’ line. I’m still processing it, but I knew it was coming.

It is no secret that I’ve had a difficult time moving on from my PhD lab./experience I felt like a bit of a star under the direction of my watchful mentor. I flourished under her care and guidance and gave birth, or completion, to a few projects. I started helping someone else, eventually became the senior graduate student, then moved on, and now I’m a staff scientist. I don’t regret any of it, but I’m now facing the reality that I’m not a star anymore, that whatever little memory of me was in my PhD lab is gone, that new blood has come in, and that much like I did, they’re giving birth, continuing or even closing chapters of my previous research life.

This week I got some sad news from my lab. My PhD mentor is going through some rough patches, and the lab as a whole has gone through even more changes in the last year. The last person that was part of my original group moved on to bigger things and my PhD mentor made some changes which surprised many. A student I met while on my last year has inherited my projects and he’s doing a fabulous job, but he’s had to face many challenges that I didn’t and sometimes gets discouraged. I feel sad about it because he’s super talented and much like me, depends on the upbeat attitude of the boss. He’ll do alright, but I feel a bit of known growing pains that I wish he didn’t have to face. I guess I’m thinking like a mother, because those are the words I’ve heard my mom use too (she’d say one day I’d understand).

This student is about to get a publication out the door, from one of the projects I gave birth to and did some of the ground work on. I can’t wait to read it, and I’m so excited for him. But with that I know that the words ‘previously, our group found …’  are coming. And I can’t help but feel a bit of pain, or whatever it is. I feel  as if a memory I was holding tight is being yanked out with much force, and I can only see how it goes away and become someone else’s dream (or in this case, project).

I know it’s silly of me to feel this way … but sometimes I think that I got out of my PhD lab without saying my goodbyes properly, I didn’t mentor enough people (OK, just two, one just a tiny bit and he’s the one that’s in charge of two projects I started), that I didn’t do things I wish I’d done. I kept working until the very last afternoon I had and then left. I was relieved that the defense, the thesis and everything was handed in. I was ready for a new life. And what a life it was! But I keep going back, and thinking and feeling as if something was/is incomplete. It’s probably that I haven’t cut the chord completely. My PI and former labbies have moved on and are happy elsewhere, even during the current rough times. I guess I’m just more emotional and attached.

It pleases me to see though, that the projects I started are being cared for and nurtured, and one of them is in the process of being published. I am happy that my results weren’t just a fluke and that they’re being built upon. I know I’m not the star anymore, and that I’m now buried in the list of references, probably not remembered much. I wonder if anyone else has ever felt that way after leaving their labs (whether as an MS, PhD or postdoc). I wonder ….

Getting “high” on research

I don’t know what’s going on, but for whatever reason I’ve been “high” for a couple of days. Ever since the boss OK’d my going on vacay in a few weeks (2 weeks, 2 whole weeks, end of June, here I come!!) I’ve been on cloud 9. I can barely contain my happiness. But I guess it stems from the fact that the boss is also “high.” A few students have defended recently, plus we’re getting new students for the summer (and maybe 1 new grad student), and I know he’s going to a conference in Eastern Europe later this year … but that’s pretty far out, thus I really don’t know the reason for why the boss is SO happy. But regardless of the cause, he’s happy, he’s excited and consequently people in the lab have a better attitude.

I’m blessed to have really cool lab mates who are quick to offer a helping hand and sound advice when things aren’t working. And we all get along. There’s not a single person in my lab (now) that I don’t like. My office-mates are cool. In general, life in the lab is really good. I have to say that pretty much every single lab I’ve worked in has had a good dynamic. Sure, we all have our days, and sometimes we get along better with some people. But overall, I have to give thanks to the high heavens that things have been very positive everywhere I’ve conducted research. (more…)