Thursday, March 13, 2008

I Had To Be There

Recently, I managed to get nearly an entire day's worth of machine time in a lab. This is a nearly impossible feat during the semester for various reasons involving the lab schedule and my schedule, but the stars aligned and I had a day in the lab. I was only able to do this, despite having 2 classes that same day, because my postdoc was in the lab the entire time and kept things going when I had to run to a class.

I spent part of the morning in the lab, went to class (in another building), and was on my way back to the lab when I ran into a colleague. I couldn't spend much time talking to him because of my rush to get back to the lab so I could have some time there before my next class. When he realized why I was rushing around (and skipping lunch), he remarked that I was a 'control freak' and should let the postdoc do the work. [This colleague was likely not entirely serious, but I think he was at least 82% serious -- he reads this blog and can correct me on this later, and if I am more than 10% off in my estimation of his seriousness, I will buy him a triple espresso.]

As I continued on my way to the lab, I thought about this. Why was I rushing back to the lab? Why was I spending the day running back and forth among 3 different buildings? The postdoc would of course be fine without my being there -- he is more proficient in this lab than I am.

The answer was obvious to me. Maybe I am a control freak in some ways, but the reason I wanted to be there in the lab was because I love the analysis process: devising a strategy, getting some results, thinking about them, making new decisions, discovering extremely interesting things.. Also, I was so excited about some of the results that we were getting that I wanted to be there when they were obtained. I wanted to see the results as soon as I could, and not wait to get a summary of them later.

I should say that this project is one component -- but not the main component -- of the postdoc's research. He has other projects on which he takes the lead, so I was not stepping on his toes by being in the lab with him. He is a collaborator on this project out of interest, and will get some additional co-authored papers for contributing his time and insights.

As I walked from the lab to the classroom where I was teaching in the afternoon, I was elated about the most recent results and I thought about telling the students about the research I was doing that day. I like to integrate some of my research in my teaching, and I knew that some of the students in that class would be interested in the day's results. That day, when I got to the class, I decided that I would not convey the news of my exciting results at that particular time, as I sensed some day-before-the-exam anxiety and I felt that it would insensitive if I started rhapsodizing off-topic about my beautiful data. There will be other opportunities, as I don't expect the thrill of doing Science to wear off any time soon.


Ms.PhD said...

I hope your postdoc appreciates your enthusiasm.

I never had an advisor like that.

But that's how I am with my students.

I'm not sure if my students appreciate it now, but I hope someday I'll have my own lab and get to work with people who do.

Niket said...

My post doc advisor was (is) exactly like you! So my two cents:

$0.01: Yes, you are a control freak :-)

$0.02: I would in a heartbeat choose to work with someone who is as enthused with their research as you are.

Anonymous said...

Cool new data kicks fucking ass! There is no better feeling than holding that graph in your hand and knowing that it represents some novel insight into how the natural world works. It's even better than actual fucking.

Maybe I am a control freak in some ways, but the reason I wanted to be there in the lab was because I love the analysis process: devising a strategy, getting some results, thinking about them, making new decisions, discovering extremely interesting things.

I feel exactly the same as you about this stuff, FSP, except for the impulse to "twiddle the knobs". I do leave all of that to my post-docs and students, and wait for them to show me beautiful data. But all of the other steps of the "analysis process", as you put it, I am fully engaged in with each trainee. Maybe the difference relates to differences in how our fields accumulate data. In my field, it is almost always a multi-month process of gradual accumulation of data before an insight reveals itself, not one furious day's work collecting data.

Anonymous said...

I definitely would want someone like you as my advisor. Previously I've worked with people who would wait for 3 weeks before asking me about the "latest" data. It's a bit disheartening when no one cares. I'm also glad that you held off spouting the new information to your class of students; share the day after said exam. :)

Anonymous said...

You're not a control freak.

You're a scientist.

jouskaaftermeantime said...

I love the analysis process too! What was once a pile of numbers generated over a long period of hard work comes together and tells you their secrets.

PS, I found this blog just a few months ago, and I have to say it is one of my favorite reads on the blogosphere. I aspire to be an FSP myself one day and your insights on your life and research and teaching are wonderful. Thank you for blogging. :)

Amanda said...

I'm glad that thrill of Science doesn't wear off. Advisor is just like you. He loves to hear about data the moment it makes its appearance!

Anonymous said...

Amanda, your comment about your advisor makes it sound like data is a newborn child or something. Too funny. Yay scientists!

Anonymous said...

I have an advisor that likes to come into the lab and work on his own projects. It's a rare occurrence but once in a while he will spend a full day "taking data".

I understand he is a scientist and enjoys this from time to time. However, he usually has a pile of manuscripts that need reading and correcting and students that need advising. Instead, he comes in to the lab and requires babysitting. He simply does not know where things are or how the equipment works. He will come in and out of the lab (like you do) and consume twice as much time as it would have taken us to do it ourselves. Of course, he thinks he is being productive. Sometimes it's cute but mostly it's annoying.

I think profs should abstain from having their own projects.

Liberal Arts Chemist said...

OK, it has been awhile since I stepped away from my position as a research professor but I always had a bench research project that was "mine". There was the emotion that you expressed of delight in the moment of discovery but I also did it for very pragmatic reasons. First it allowed me to fully appreciate if my research lab and personnel were working efficiently. Secondly it allowed me to also be aware of the time and effort required to create enough new data to fill half a page. Finally, when nothing was going right on my project my research group could see how I coped with problems rather than just shouting at them from the sidelines.

chemcat said...

anonymous, I'm one of the advisors guilty of going into lab and wasting everybody's time bc I don't know where the tips are, etc. But: my students call me whenever something is broken, and it was frustrating for me to be in lab only when things weren't working. I now work in lab if I need to clean up data for a paper (or get additional data for a rebuttal), and the student on the paper has graduated. Other times I do things to get a sense of how difficult they are, where are the problems, etc, much better than simply listening to the students. Sometimes I step in to train a newbie, or if I want to try some crazy idea without wasting my students' time (would you prefer if your advisor made you drop everything each time he had a grandiose idea? I worked for someone like that - no fun, believe me). Or I try to put in a full day to show students how much they can accomplish if they plan things (opposed to wasting their time during instrument runs), and that I am not above boring prep work. I get a better sense of what are the problems in lab, both organizational and interpersonal. I agree totally with liberal arts chemist....
Plus, IT'S MY LAB, and I get to play if I want to :-)

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous 8:32
All you've really said is that YOUR advisor is a klutz in the lab so he shouldn't be there. Many very successful senior scientists do great work in the lab. Oliver Smithes who just won the nobel prize still works in the lab daily at age 82.

Maybe it's your dream to sit in an office all day once you become a prof, but that doesn't apply to all of us.

Female Science Professor said...

Update: my colleague says he was 70% serious about my being a control freak.