Monday, October 15, 2007

I Could Have Done That

Many years ago when I was a second-year grad student, I gave my very first conference presentation. The topic was a project that was not my main thesis topic, but a 'side' project that my advisor let me explore because it interested me. It was a simple, focused project using some new technology not previously available, and it easily set to rest a minor debate that had been unresolved owing to the lack of such data. It wasn't a big deal, but it was a nice introduction for me to research, writing, and conferences.

My advisor and I presented the work as a poster at a national meeting, and I found the experience very thrilling, as a parade of scientists, including many whose names I knew from reading their papers, visited my poster and chatted with me about the work. One particularly Famous Scientist stopped by the poster, said "I could have done this", and walked away. He walked away before I could reply, but my response would have been something like "No kidding".

Over the years, I had several more "I could have done that" encounters with this Famous Scientist. For one project that I did, he told me that he had thought about doing it for years but just hadn't had time. If he had the time, he would have done this project long before I did it. For a paper that I published, he wrote to me a long letter saying that he had not reviewed my paper, but if he had, he would have had the following comments [there followed a long list of comments]. The comments were mostly positive, as it turns out, and many were along the lines of "I knew that already" (even though most people didn't).

Based on this brief description, you may have concluded, as I did at the time, that this person is an obnoxious jerk. In fact, he is kind of obnoxious, but I have come to appreciate him in many way. His passion for science is not driven by an interest in being famous or in putting people down. He is curious about everything, he reads everything, and he has an opinion about everything. Although he terrifies many students, he loves discussing science with anyone and everyone, and is fascinating to talk to. The list of his undergraduate and graduate advisees who have had successful scientific careers is awesome.

During visits to my department, he has spent hours with my students discussing their research. He finds something interesting in even the most boring talk, and likes to spark discussions with creative questions and comments. He is a very interesting person.

Although I wouldn't have guessed it from his "I could have done that" comments over the years, he meant them as compliment in a weird kind of way. It is surely an egotistical way to some extent, but now that I know him better (and am no longer an anxious young grad student), I can get past that kind of thing and have some great conversations with him. He even recently suggested that we collaborate on a project. I couldn't help but wonder if that meant there was finally something I could do that he couldn't, or if he just didn't have time to do the entire project himself.. but mostly I think it would be fun to work with him.

My point is that although some of the obnoxious people I have described in this blog may be incurable jerks, some are more nuanced jerks, though it may take some time (age) and distance to be able to appreciate them.


Ms.PhD said...

That's actually really inspiring. Kudos for sticking with it long enough for him to appreciate you, and to learn to appreciate him, even if it took you a while to realize that yes, coming from him that is a compliment.

I usually like the nuanced jerks. Nobody's perfect, and I prefer the ones who are well-read and opinionated, even if they're egotistical, to the ones who are stupid, back-stabbing and insecure!

Anonymous said...

I love the concept of "nuanced jerks" (in contrast to the proverbial "spherical bastards," who are bastards no matter how you look at them). Thanks for the reminder that people are complex and we shouldn't dismiss those who happen to be jerks part of the time. Although I think we are still allowed to complain about them when they're being jerks!

Female Science Professor said...

Yes, we must still complain about the jerks! In fact, perhaps I will post something new about my most trollish colleague tomorrow. He has been on a rampage again..

Anonymous said...

I do find this inspiring, but I have to say that I am daunted by the fact that all of us, as impressionable young scientists, are asked to deal with this kind (and the less nuanced kind) of jerk frequently, and usually without warning or advice. It is this kind of experience that often scares people away from science. Disproportionately, the people scared away are women. So I can appreciate this person for what he has done for you and the many students in his life, but I am afraid I harbor some ill will toward him as well.

Anonymous said...

Oscar Wilde once said:

"I wish I had said that"

The reply...

"You will, oscar you will"

It sounds like an oscar-esque compliment of sorts...

EliRabett said...

For symmetry, say the same thing to him about one of his papers. If you also have some useful suggestions about the work even better. His reaction will tell.