Keeping in mind that, in my research group, no one is entirely sane, we all have our eccentricities, and many of us are afflicted by some amount of social ineptness.. it turns out that some of the undergraduate students working with my group this summer are truly strange. I am not a real doctor, of course, so I'm not about to diagnose Asperger's Syndrome or some form of mental illness, and therefore I am using the word "strange", realizing it is rather lame. "Strange" can be benign and/or interesting, and using the word assumes that there is something else that is recognizable as not strange.
Even with those caveats and my lack of objectivity about what is strange, I can say with some confidence that these students are very strange in not-so-positive sorts of ways. In the mildest case, the student is difficult to talk to, doesn't seem to understand normal social interactions (like when a conversation is over or what is appropriate to say to someone you don't know well), refuses to do some basic (non-dangerous) research activities owing to irrational fears or preferences, and is easily derailed by minor obstacles. It's OK to be socially awkward, but refusing to do certain tasks means that someone else has to do them.
In a more extreme case, the student (as I just found out this week) is obsessed with violence, behaves erratically, hears voices, and scares those who work with most closely with him.
These strange students are very smart, do well in classes, and come highly recommended. My hope has been that they will enjoy doing research this summer and we will all find a way to work together. Now, however, I wonder whether I should draw a line between merely strange and scary-strange.
I have talked to the scary-strange student, and he is quite open about his emotional and personal problems. Soon after he started working with my group, I passed him in the hallway and said "Hi X, how's it going?" and he immediately told me in great detail about his relationship problems, his long history of instability, and much more. He says he is getting help with his problems and is hopeful that he can function better soon. He's out of town for a few weeks, but when he returns I will have to figure out whether to keep him on as a research assistant for the rest of the summer. If I decide he can't work with my group any more, the reason will be because he is scares people, not because I've been dissatisfied with his work, so it's a difficult decision.
2 months ago