Wednesday, June 13, 2007

How Strange Is Too Strange?

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.


Sarah said...

He sounds too strange, and I think him scaring people is a perfectly acceptable reason for him to no longer work in your lab. I'm currently in a lab where a graduate student (before my time) had to be asked to leave for similar reasons. No one in our lab or the lab adjacent to ours would work at night if he was around, because he was creepy and scared everyone. When he was finally escorted from the building (literally), he had left a 10 page delusional manifesto on everyone's desks. You can practically see his mental illness manifest itself in the writings. They ended up posting security guards at the doors checking everyone who walked into the building.

Regardless of the student's lab abilities, if his/her presence is detrimental to the rest of the lab, you need to let him/her go. My advisor learned his lesson...he now interviews (and has us interview) potential researchers before accepting them into the lab. That's not to say we don't have strange ones (my undergrad, cough, cough), but it at least hopefully weeds out the scary ones.

Graduate student said...

You cannot just "let him go", if I were you I would make sure he is receiving the help that he needs. Also on a different note, people with Asperger syndrome are niether scary nor a threat to the society. Shouldn't your graduate students get exposed to people with diffrent learning capacities and behavioral skills? After all graduate school is about mentorship.

Female Science Professor said...

I did make sure he is receiving the help he needs.

I neither said nor implied that people with Aspergers are a threat to anyone.

My grad students are getting lots of exposure to people with different "learning capacities and behavioral skills".

Anonymous said...

Both sides should be considered.
Can`t you say that you understand his situation (u articulate in a humane way..I admire), and that some other students (not names) find it "difficult" to work with him. (Maybe you should consider, saying more explisitt, that it is because they do not understand his disease).. then he will have a reason of why (Don`t just tell him: simply because he`s creepy..that would break his heart??)Give him tasks, not so lab-oriented, where noone should feel "scared" of him being around.

On the other side: this is a clever student, open about his problems. I do think it would be very hard on him, if you just let him go. What to tell his family: they did not want me? Will that not totally break his selfesteem and confident?

Showing him trust, but also putting him to tasks that is more "manageble" for all parts, would be better. Or letting him work more alone (perhaps in lab), where he do not have to be stressed out by interaction the whole time. But more on his own premisses. After all, he is not violent? And it is only for the summer you are having him.

But this is only my opinion.

ps! how long have you been working as scientist?

Kitty said...

The molecular lab I'm working in is having a big problem with a weird student right now. She's not violent or delusional or anything, just socially inappropriate, hygienically questionable and not very well liked. (Were you wondering where the used tampon and pile of candy wrappers on the bathroom floor came from? Wonder no more! Of course she didn't wash her hands!)

Anyway. When she is working, she is able to perform all of her tasks appropriately. But when she is not working but just hanging out in the lab, she pays absolutely no attention to protocol. She touches everything with her bare hands, absentmindedly carries things from dirty areas to clean areas, contaminates everything she comes in contact with and won't listen to anyone who tells her to stop. She gets huffy and defensive, and the next day she will do the same thing again.

The lab manager has complained to her advisor, who seems to think her behavior is no big deal as long as she is doing her work appropriately. He is unwilling to speak with her about it. Because the lab is shared space, it is becoming a politically awkward situation as well.

Far more pleasantly, I used to have a high school intern who was on the autism spectrum. He was definitely odd, but really delightful. He would tell you at great length about the Artemis Fowl novels no matter how little you wanted to hear about it, and say things like "Crows can use complex tools" in response to a question like, "How are you?" - and he had a an incredibly sharp, sly sense of humor and was really, really good at his work. I hope he finds a niche where he is appreciated not only for his skills but also for his personality, as odd as it was.

super hero said...

is he potantialy dangerous or just scary? letting him go just because he is scary may make things worse, even really dangerous.

Kitty said...

(Pssh, missed a line in my cut'n'paste.)

For those of us who spend more time in our labs than we do at home, it is especially important that our workspace be a positive environment. Best of luck in dealing with your strange student - there is absolutely no reason to keep someone around who makes you or those for whom you are already responsible feel unsafe.

Yvette said...

With all due respect, FSP, you seem to be running into a suprising number of scary-strange people lately! First the odd person who came into your office, than the manuscript writer, now odd undergraduates... Perhaps we're proportionally more normal in my department, but I'm hard-pressed to think of someone who wouldn't be rehired by a professor just because he creeps others out.

lost academic said...

I am sure you will eventually decide whether or not it's possible to retain the student, that doesn't seem like it's a particularly large question. If you decide to ask him to leave, do you know how you will approach that meeting, and how you want him to walk out of it thinking and feeling, if at all possible? Also, since you're pleased with this person's work, it seems likely that he will probably seek employment elsewhere if not immediately than at some point in the near future. Would you feel compelled to inform the other group of your concerns with the person? Would you volunteer that information if asked? I don't want to suggest that there's a mountain where there may be just a molehill, but I think being aware of the balance between delicacy, privacy and safety is always pertinent.

Anonymous said...

As a current PostDoc in a similar situation for the past year, I feel like it should be said that I feel as the PI your responsibility is to the whole lab - not just the particular student.

Being uncomfotable is one thing, but being scaried is another. I work with an undergraduate that is very socially awkward and hygenically challeneged (Funny we interviewed him first too and none of this showed up). These things I can deal with - what I can't deal with are the accusations of me disturbing his mental state by asking him to adhere to normal lab protocol or his refusal to do simple (routine) tasks in the lab when monitoring his experiments then blaming me for the experimetns not working.

My PI agrees that things are not good - but has refused to ask him to leave the lab. I will tell, I cringe every time I walk into the lab and this person is there. I work to avoid times when he will be in my lab. (yes, MY lab space, I am the postdoc and all, not the undergrad). It has been the source of much frustration and has definitely taken it's toll on my productivity.

I hope your able to find a situation that works for your lab and the students.

EcoGeoFemme said...

I get frustrated in my lab environment because the PI's are so nonconfrontational. We don't have anyone who is too strange, scary, or dirty, but we do have people who slack off or manipulate others into doing their work. I'm sure the PI(s) know(s) but nothing is ever done about it. If that hurts my morale, I can imagine that a really weird person would be a true motivation buster.

k18 said...

Y'know, I feel kinda sad for him


Female Science Professor said...

Me too -- I am very fond of the scary-strange student. He is a good person.

iGollum said...

Sounds like a tight rope to walk. Having been called strange or weird quite a few times myself I can't be completely objective, as much as I'd like to.

With that caveat, I must say that sometimes we (odd people in a general sense, regardless of the origin and precise nature of the oddity) don't realize that our behaviour can be interpreted in a negative way by others. We feel that being different (which we are generally aware of being) is not necessarily wrong and that we have a right to our idiosyncrasies as long as we perform well in our tasks.

This naturally leads to two points of discussion. The easy one of course being: is the performance of this student adequate? This, I suspect, is a question you can resolve easily. Much harder is the question of whether their behaviour is perceived as threatening for legitimate reasons, or because the other people in the lab are insufficiently tolerant of difference. This is a very delicate matter and subject to appreciation... As a frequent reader of your blog I would venture to say that you don't sound like an intolerant person, quite the contrary. But what about the other people in you lab, who report their own impression of this student's behaviour? Are they reasonable and objective in their assessment? I agree wih the commenters who say you have a responsibility to your group's wellbeing, but I think one should be careful not to take the opinion of the majority at face value. Sometimes people who are not used to coping with difference get scared by their imagination rather than reality, and the different person should not be made to suffer because of this. Also, you can lose a valuable asset in the form of a different viewpoint - conformity can be such an obstacle to original research. So these aspects of the problem have to be balanced.

My suggestion would be to talk with the student about the fact that he's making other people uncomfortable and ask him if he realizes this. I once had a similar conversation with my advisor when I was an undergrad doing my final dissertation, although admittedly the situation wasn't quite as bad - I don't think anybody thought I was actually scary. While it was a difficult discussion for him to initiate, and for me to hear, it was very good because it made me realize that there were some points on which I could help by making some efforts yet retain my individuality. And he realized I wasn't doing it on purpose and some of my behaviour was just being misinterpreted by my labmates. Five years later and a few months away from my PhD thesis defense, I'm a valued member of the team - not everybody's friend, and there's one person in particular who is very open about not liking me, but we maintain a professional working relationship nonetheless. I get along very well with most people in the group, although I still have quite a reputation for being a nutcase. We joke about it openly, in fact, and my advisor tends to 'warn' new people, not in a negative way but just to let them know so they won't be too disturbed if I do something unusual. It's fine with me because we've worked it out by communicating about the issue.

In other terms, you have to invest some work climbing to the high-energy state corresponding to the discussion, but if it works out afterwards you get to settle into a lower-energy state that makes everything easier and might even light up the atmosphere by emitting a few photons ;-)

Female Science Professor said...

Thanks for making the important point that part of the equation involves whether the people who are anxious about the scary-strange student are tolerant, fairly non-judgmental people. I am definitely taking that into account.

sixdegrees said...

Not only are people with Asperger's neither scary nor a threat to society, you will find the highest concentration of such individuals amongst the FACULTY in any physical or biological sciences department!

Anonymous said...


I guess you haven't spent much time in a maths department lately ...

Mr. B. said...


Over the years Mr. B. has seen numerous whacky things in academic labs. Same thing for industrial labs where he has worked. So at first he is inclined to think: "Get over it, you had better get used to tolerating strange behavior."

But on the other hand, other people in the lab have rights, too. This is similar, with important differences I know, to the issue of second hand smoke.

Some people really shouldn't work in a lab. Could this person perhaps do some computer related project where they could work more or less independently of others in the lab?

Bottom line: As I get older I am coming around to the view that strange people should be discouraged (in a nice way) from working in labs like yours because it makes the environment worse for others. In a small lab such a person might work out if the advisor was willing to do some personal supervision and co-workers were VERY tolerant. (Saints?)


Anonymous said...

Personally I have always found labs so strange that I have chosen never to work in one. Here we are addressing a serious issue - one of tolerance, acceptance of the other-enabled and basic self preservation - so let's move out of the fume cupboard and into the real world. Though I do recall some crazy, scary dude who recently went on a bender, laying waste to quite a few of his fellow students. There is more at stake here than personal hygiene, contamination of samples and ones own finer feelings

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you are taking into consideration the levels of tolerance etc of other labmates. It is not rare for an odd person to end up lab scapegoat, especially if the rest of the group talks to each other about things and the odd person is perceived as relatively weak. I'm not saying that is what is happening here, but I saw it happen once and I was surprised at how some of my fellow grad students who were nice and reasonable, went out of their way to be nasty and gossip about this one woman about fairly minor things, just because disliking her became sort of part of lab culture.

I had a situation similar to yours in my lab last year. I don't think I handled it very well, but I learned it is important to be open about issues and very clear about expectations. Most people take in that type of feedback well, and some change accordingly. And if they don't, you have an out. (I was also advised to put expectations and agreements in writing, signed by both. but I've never done that) It is possible that if you gave him concrete things to change: "do not mention violent things to lab mates", "do not talk about personal problems during lab time", and do on, he'd be able to comply because he is smart enough to follow concrete instructions, if not socially aware enough to figure out what most people can without being told.
good luck!