Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Spring Cleaning

A reader wrote to me with a truly disgusting tale of the unhealthy and unacceptably low level of personal hygiene of a very smart and motivated graduate student. This raises the interesting but difficult question of how much an adviser can do in these situations. Can we demand a certain level of personal hygiene of our graduate students? Can and should these demands be enforced?

I hasten to note that this reader is dealing with an extreme situation. This is not the case of preferring that someone not sweat, or something of a similar level.

If the unsanitary behavior is so revolting that others in the group (including the adviser) find it nauseating to work with a particular student, it could be that the student has a serious physical or emotional problem that needs attention by the university health center. I have never been in the situation of having to ask a student to seek help for this type of problem, so I don't speak from experience here, but I think I would first inform someone in my department of the situation (e.g., the department chair, the grad adviser), perhaps consult with the campus health center, and then talk to the student about the problem and the need for him/her to get help.

You can't force a student to get medical help, but you can do things to minimize the impact of the situation on those who must work with the student. Note that I focus on students here because that is what the e-mail was about, but of course there are faculty with unfortunate personal hygiene issues as well.

In the specific case in which a student's unsanitary habits are degrading research group equipment or materials, including a computer dedicated to that student's use, I think it is reasonable in such extreme cases to take the computer (or whatever) away and insist that the student use their own personal computer or other items that are possible for an individual to purchase. Part of the terms of use of research equipment is that these items not be degraded any more than is usual for normal wear-and-tear.

It is also reasonable, in extreme cases, to set limits on what the student can and cannot do in terms of access to facilities and interactions with others. These limits should be very clearly stated and discussed with the student, however difficult it is to have that conversation. Someone who is just a slob (as opposed to mentally ill) may then be motivated to clean up, once it is clear that continued revolting personal habits have negative consequences for themselves.

It may be a good idea to have another faculty member or an administrator or even a counselor in the room when you, the adviser, has a conversation with the student about these topics. You don't want to humiliate or appear to gang up on a student who may be having severe problems, but you also want to make sure that conversations that touch on issues of a rather personal nature are dealt with in a professional way by those better equipped to deal with them.

If the student cannot or will not be helped, but does excellent work despite causing widespread revulsion in all who come into contact with him/her, perhaps there is a way for that student to work in near-isolation. That doesn't sound like a such a healthy or even good solution for the student, but the other options seem even worse. It is difficult to imagine what kind of career such a student could have upon obtaining a degree.

Perhaps others who have encountered similar situations as advisers will have better advice than I have been able to muster.


Anonymous said...

On a similar note, how do you handle a student whose weight issues present a safety hazard to themselves and those around them?

Anonymous said...

How do you decide when it is truly a health issue and not just intolerance on the part of the other people in the lab? People who smell are no fun to be around - but how do you know they are degrading lab equipment? Is the stench causing the hardware to corrode and the gaskets to leak? Seriously? Or are we talking about porn-related abuses? Regardless, I don't think I would assume that someone stinky is going to be a greater source of germs - there are many perfectly groomed people who are not good handwashers and also participate in ... you know ....

As for students with weight issues, give me a break.

Anonymous said...

taken from http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~kekule/TourLabGuidelines6.pdf

Buried with the 23 pages of these detailed "scientific guidlines" for researchers working in the group concerned is this para:

"Personal Hygiene: Although not customary in all countries, Americans generally bathe at least several times per week. As a result, many Americans are offended by the infrequent bathing habits of others (whether Americans or internationals). Thus, you may be leaving a negative impression of yourself without ever knowing it. Unfortunately, bad impressions are often difficult to overcome. Likewise, be sure to use an underarm deodorant since most Americans find body odor to be most offensive. I have seen people causing themselves to be ostracized by others simply because of poor personal hygiene habits"

Comrade PhysioProf said...

You're supposed to *tell* us what this nasty-ass grad student was doing that was so fucking disgusting, not just allude to it.

If this were happening in my lab, I would (1) contact the DGS and explain what was going on and (2) forbid the student from entering the lab unless and until they cleaned up their act.

Anonymous said...

I was the one who sent the email. Thank you so much for writing a post! The student is a foreign national and I really think that his perception of acceptable norms of social behavior are somewhat skewed by his cultural (or lack of) background. We've talked casually in the lab about certain hygiene issues and I've hinted about appropriate behaviors, but I do not think that he gets hints. Everyone in my department knows about his hygiene issues so I finally spoke to him directly this morning (after reading this post). We were both uncomfortable. He said that he was unaware that he had done "those things" in front of other students and was very apologetic. We'll see how things go...now that I've become his mother instead of his advisor. Good grief.

Anonymous said...

This post could have been written about a labmate during my PhD.. he smelled, wore sweat-stained clothes, chewed loudly, ate disgusting food, burped a lot, etc, etc. At one point he started working mostly at night - which helped ease our discomfort. However, seeing a desk unused during the day, our advisor assigned it to a new post-doc. Every morning the poor guy would have to get out a can of lysol and clean off the desk surface, change out the keyboard, and swap chairs so that he could have a decent work station. Ridiculous.

The final resolution? Well, let's just say things were found on the computer that don't belong on university computers.. and presented with this evidence our advisor expelled him from the lab. Not ideal. As a result, I have to admit I pay attention to cleanliness when interviewing new students - my work is in a bio lab, so you need good habits, but I'm sure this incident has scared me away from the eccentrics out there.

Anonymous said...

No matter how uncomfortable the situation, the PI should suck it up and address the situation. Other students will not be happy with you if you don't. And even if you feel like you're the mother, you in fact are in some ways--you're the manager of the lab and the one responsible for managing conflict in the lab.

On the other hand, I was the student who didn't care what this person thought about me and informed them what Anonymous was armed with from page 23.

Anonymous said...

I am anonymous 12:46. You may think the weight issue is ridiculous. I would have too until I saw that the student could not use the emergency exit from a location where we conduct field research because of their size and in another field incident, fell on another researcher, injuring the other person's wrist (it could have been much worse). This is an extremely sensitive issue and I'm completely stumped with how to deal with it but what do I say to the person who was recently injured? Clearly, I have to deal with this.

Azulao said...

I once put on a syllabus (for a strenuous 10-day field trip) that bathing daily was required, and then ensured that our lodging arrangements made it feasible.

Put this kind of thing in lab policy, make the policies widely available and visible, and enforce 'em fairly. For the weight issue, the policy could say something like, students must physically be able to do the job, use emergency exits, etc.

You can also put things like no high heels, no revealing or loose clothes, etc. -- because they are SAFETY and EFFICIENCY issues. Follow the military's SOP: Clarity and consistent enforcement (about clothing and physical fitness, that is!).

@ Anonymous who sent the original mail, you did this student a huge favor. Thanks for not passing the buck to another non-American person.

Anonymous said...

I have a similar issue with one of my office mates. Sometimes he really smells so much that I get a headache. The stench is revolting - something like cooked cabbage that's been left outside for a long while. I am wondering whether he may have some liver issues.

He is a foreign national, and so am I. I suppose other people must have noticed it too; his boss for instance. We are not in the same group and I don't have a particularly friendly relation with him (cold politeness describes it well). I am not sure what to do about this.

Liz in Ypsilanti said...

To Anonymous 12:46 and 10:45: There was a big discussion on Slate http://www.slate.com/id/2246470/ a couple of weeks ago regarding "oversized" airline passengers. In among the tearful "don't hassle me" comments were a lot of insights about size, reasons for excessive size, methods of coping by the person, methods for coping by the people around them. It might be worth your time to check into this for some "crowdsourcing" guidance.

Genomic Repairman said...

I gave a foreign postdoc a gift basket of soap and deodorant one time because he smelled like F.A.B. (Feet, Ass, and Balls). He took the hint and thanked me.

Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous 11:37:00

If you feel you can't speak to your office-mate, then perhaps you would be more comfortable talking to your adviser (who may talk to your om's adviser on your behalf and can better relay the message), the dept. chair, or the dept. administrator? If it is a shared office, there is someone who is ultimately responsible for it, someone who assigns students to this office, and to whom you can express your concerns. If they are responsible for putting you in that room together then they are also responsible for ensuring this is a safe place, conducive to work. If the smell distracts you, or makes you feel ill, then clearly this is an issue that should be addressed.

Anonymous said...

For anyone thinking about hiring or firing someone based on their weight (or lack of weight), I strongly recommend talking to someone in human resources or your local eeoc first. There are some pretty serious legal ramifications.

FAB! I'll never think of that word the same way again.

Ms.PhD said...

You might think you could tell when you interview them, but I've worked in labs where certain people only displayed really offensive behaviors when they were sick or particularly stressed out.

There was one guy who alternately snorted or blew his nose/spit into the trash can when he had a cold. Seemed like he had a cold all the time, it was such a horrible thing to witness. What can you do? If you politely tell them to go home and get well, most scientists even good-hygiene types) won't go.

Another one sometimes chewed (and spit) tobacco, although he went through periods of trying to quit, switching to smoking, which was oddly less offensive because at least he had to leave the building to do it.

I've mostly had good luck with students who needed to see a doctor. In one case it turned out the GP had prescribed the wrong kind of cream, making this kid's minor rash on his face spread and blister. I told him to see a dermatologist, and voila! Everybody feels (and looks) better.

Having said that, the ones that really scare me are the students who are clearly struggling with alcoholism, abusive families, or eating disorders.

ME said...

Having been in a lab with a post-doc who never showered, biked long distances to work and wore the same clothes for 1 week, PLEASE tell them what the custom is. Even my mild manner advisor would joke that by Wed you could smell him before you could see him.
Also had a graduate student whose pants were always too low. Kindly asked her to wear a lab coat all the time in lab. We saw much less crack after that and eventually she started dressing more modestly.

amy said...

The weight issue, I think, is quite different from the hygiene issue. Regarding emergency exits, an overweight employee would have some legal grounds for arguing that the employer bears the burden of providing accessible exits for every employee. Obesity has not yet been included in the ADA, but I think the law will be heading in that direction soon. And regarding endangering others, that could happen in lots of ways besides obesity. What if one lab member is a 6'4" weight lifter and another is a 5'0" very skinny person? The larger person could easily hurt the smaller person during a fall, but nobody thinks this is grounds for firing either one, or for commanding the weight lifter to stop pumping iron and the skinny person to start eating more. It's the employer's responsibility to make sure the work environment is safe for all sizes of persons, to provide protective gear for anyone who needs it, and to keep people apart from each other if one is a danger to the other.

Personal hygiene, however, is something quickly and easily fixed by the person causing the problem, so it doesn't seem unreasonable to require changes in personal habits. It would be more unreasonable to require others to wear nose plugs or make other adjustments.

Anonymous said...

I am going to present a brand new point of view. I actually WAS a grad student who used to have body odour issues that made my life miserable and a couple of people rather angry.

For one, I was most offended by people pretending to "understand" my cultural norms. I bathe more frequently than the average American and that is exactly how I was taught to behave since I was a child. In fact, if you look at the history, the reason the British bathe more frequently than all other kinds of Europeans is that they picked up the habit from the people of my country when they colonized it.

I however, did sweat way more than average and I felt it was hurtful that people just assumed that I did not bathe.

I always wondered whether I would have been treated that way if I had reeked of cigarette smoke. But all it took was 1 grad student (who didn't even end up graduating) to make a complaint against me and all hell broke loose. Oh and by the way, this other grad student who complained worked 3 floors below me, had an advisor who worked in a completely different field and not a single one of my office mates agreed to sign the letter he wrote to the dept chair.

In hindsight, I am rather glad I was treated as badly as I was. It inspired me to graduate and get the hell out of that place as soon as I could. And second, it caused me to become extremely disillusioned with the United States and its people and pushed me to explore opportunities on a truly international basis and I believe my career is better off today for it.

Anonymous said...

My adviser picks his nose infront of us and sometimes puts his finger in his mouth, he also cleans his ears using his fingers.

We graduate students feel so nauseated, and so hesitant to meet him. How to seek help?


Anonymous said...

My lab group has encountered this with college-aged (American) research subjects that, due to the nature of the research, we will meet with >20 times throughout the course of research. In our cases it has been smart kids who have never really had many friends and don't spend much time around others. We've had success with having a grad student that the subject has bonded with (seems to happen with these personalities) privately talk to the student in general non-blaming "we" terms ("we're getting older and more mature, and as part of that we have to start taking care of our bodies," etc). It just seems to be that some people don't pick up on social cues and if no one tells them what to do they have no idea that they need to shower with soap, regularly wash their clothes, etc.

Anonymous said...

I've encountered this before as a grad student when a desk was assigned to me that was beside the desk of another student who reeked all the time because he seldom showered. And he was always at his desk (he was a theorist and spent little time in the lab). as a result I never used my desk, instead camping out in a corner of the lab or doing all my reading and writing work at home or in the library.

When I graduated and became a postdoc and actually had my own cubicle with my own lab-assigned computer, phone and desk it felt wonderful!! (isn't it sad that having a cubicle made me feel so happy)

Anonymous said...

I am not surprised the complainer was a female....

sure, cultural difference and misunderstanding, but what about gender (you don't like how he smells).

How can weight be a safety hazard, well, then what about reasonable accommodations for overweight/big people (some old labs may need to be redesigned from the PI's grant money or start up $$$$)

Anonymous said...

Ok, that last comment was just horrible and sexist. I am the original complainer. You know what the problem is? He picks his nose and wipes the result on the lab computer and wall next to the lab computer. He has also been seen picking his nose and ingesting the results IN CLASS. This makes his fellow students not want to work with him and not want to come to my lab. He also audibly and olfactorily passes gas in the lab and in classes, which also ostracizes him from other students. His hygiene could impact may ability to recruit new students. And, male (in fact MORE male than female) students have commented about his hygiene to me as well as male faculty members. So, yeah, that sexist comment was just plain inflammatory.

Anonymous said...

Before anyone goes off, I don't think it is sexist to say that females on average hold others to higher hygene standards than males on average. I think this is probably a true statement.

However, it is stereotyping based on gender (i.e. sexism) to say that the _reason_ the original complainer complained is because she's female. The reason the complainer complained is because she has average hygiene standards that make the behaviour of the gross labmate unacceptable to her. It's true that being female she may be more likely to have such standards. But we are talking about averages with huge variation so as usual stereotyping leads us to folly.

Madscientistgirl said...

I recently sat on shift for a week next to a man who must not have bathed or changed clothes in the last two months. I also smelled alcohol on him. I could smell him when I walked in the room, no matter where he was. The smell was so bad it almost made me physically ill. Before I figured out that the smell was coming from him, I searched the room for a dead animal. I admit, I dealt with it by asking the person in charge to deal with it. But if I had been expected to work like that one more day, I would have refused because it was making me sick to my stomach.

I certainly have worked with many people whose body odor I disliked or even found offensive, but this was the only case where I actually felt like it rose to a workplace issue. The difference was that I could still smell him when I was twenty feet away and it was still overpowering at that distance. I couldn't get away. I have sympathy for people who genuinely have health issues and I accept that people from different cultures have different norms, but we all have to work together and everyone should be able to be comfortable at work.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous 3/30 12:46

Speaking as an overweight graduate student in the US, it is hard enough dealing with the low self esteem, depressive, feeling judged by the entire world kind of issues that come with being overweight without worrying about being nagged by my advisor about my weight for "safety" reasons.

When I do field work with my advisor, I worry for weeks ahead of time about having to ask for the seatbelt extender on the plane, difficulty fitting into safety equipment, my physical fitness limiting my participation in some of the more strenuous aspects of working in the field.

I'm doing the best I can to get healthier, with the help of doctors and counselors. Have a little compassion and keep your mouth shut.