Monday, June 23, 2008

Mine Mine Mine

After many years of having a logistically awkward situation with respect to my lab space, I finally convinced the new department chair that a more conveniently located lab that has been used to store junk for more than a decade would be well used by my research group. It is not a large lab, and it would not be desirable for most other research groups, but I have some low-tech activities that are perfectly suited for this smallish space.

This lab is now officially assigned to my research group, and in our few weeks of occupancy, we have already made good use of the space. Certain research activities are now much easier to accomplish efficiently, and it is easier to involve undergrads in research projects.

My other lab space is in a rather remote location and has its own set of keys that can only be acquired by filling out permission forms obtained from a difficult-to-find person who lurks in a basement office at random times. The new space is in the main department building, not far from my office, and can be accessed using a master key that all faculty, postdocs, and grad students have.

A colleague recently told me that a postdoc in another research group has been using my new lab and some of my equipment. This postdoc has not asked permission and in fact I have never even met him. I have not yet encountered him in the lab, but he always cleans up perfectly and he doesn't use any of the lab consumable supplies.

If he asked my permission to use the lab, I would readily grant it. So why does it bother me that he is using the lab without my permission? Am I more territorial than I had realized?

With my primary lab space, I limit access to those who have had the required safety training, who know how to use the materials and facilities, and whose key-permission forms I have signed. I am not aware of anyone who has used those lab facilities without my permission.

It's important to know who is using the lab for the simple reason that I am responsible for the people and the facilities. I once banned a Ph.D. student (not mine) from ever stepping foot in my lab again because he had repeatedly violated lab safety rules and because he was such a slob that he was causing problems for others who were also doing work in the lab.

Owing to that incident and a few other more minor ones, I know that I need to be generally aware of what is going on in the lab, and who is doing what.

And I feel territorial. I do not feel territorial with every molecule of my being, but the sentiment is lurking in there somewhere.

Furthermore, I do not believe that this postdoc would use, without permission, labs supervised by most (any?) of my colleagues. For some reason, however, he feels he can use my lab space without so much as having introduced himself to me.

Yes, I will talk to him, and no, I will not go nuclear on him and ban him from my 'territory' because he offended me by not asking permission first. If situations like this continue to arise, however, I am changing the locks.


Anonymous said...

If it were me, I would tell the chair he needs to have the locks changed on my additional space so that I can control access to people who work for me and are authorized to use the space. Cause, you know, some hapless maroon with the department-wide access key might hurt himself, and that would look really bad for the department and the chair.

BTW, I know you are not asking for advice, but if you really do have an internationally known research program and are the best funded and most prolifically and prominently published faculty member in your department, why the fuck do you put up with the shit that your department seems to deal up on an ongoing and daily basis? Your main lab space is in some remote location, but this space has been moribund for more than a decade!?

Get some good job offers, and give your asshole chair and the fuckwit dean that looks the other way while crap like this goes on a list of the shit that is going to have to happen for you to stay. And if they don't give you what you want, then fucking leave and go somewhere where you will be treated decently.

Deans and chairs pull this crapola only because they think they can get away with it. Why not disabuse them of that notion?

Candid Engineer said...

Bizarre. Maybe he just thinks that since he has the key, he has a right to use the space? Even if you were not an ounce territorial, I still think you are completely within your right to want control over who accesses your lab. You are ultimately responsible for whatever goes on in there.

Anonymous said...

There is a good chance that postdoc spoke with some of your grad students or postdocs about using the lab space. While a grad student, I routinely used other professor's lab space without asking that professor for permission. It becomes a real hassle and is a big barrier for collaboration if the PI has to be consulted about every matter. As a PI myself, I would be very glad to hear that postdocs want to come to my lab and use stuff. It means I have the cool toys and increases interactions among various groups. Also, some of my biggest scientific publications resulted from students wandering into the lab with ideas and trying something. I recall 2 times this happened where the PI was initially unaware of things but the work resulted in high profile publications (Science/Nature). In the end, everybody was happy and nobody's feelings were hurt that they weren't consulted. These sort of scientific accomplishments would never happen with PIs that have territorial or control freak issues.

EliRabett said...

Are you sure that none of your group gave this person informal permission? As in "Hey can I use your lab for this procedure, it would be a lot more convenient for me?

cookingwithsolvents said...

The idea of someone using a different PI's space without asking them first is completely alien and bizarre to me. That doesn't mean it's surprising, though. . .we (the sciences) get some odd ones, don't we?

I totally agree that a discussion is in order, though I might not be so kind if it is clear that the space (s)he? has been using is NOT communal. . .

Anonymous said...

Well, that's just rude and irresponsible, and I agree you should nip it in the bud before this disrespectful attitude toward your research equipment spreads. I'd talk to his PI and the department chair as well as the postdoc. And put a sign on the door of the lab saying "For access to lab equipment, please contact FSP."

It's really hard for me to imagine using someone else's equipment without their express permission -- which makes me wonder whether someone else told him he could do this. Good luck getting to the bottom of this!

Female Science Professor said...

I am not THE most prolific and prominent faculty in my department, I am ONE OF the most prolific and prominent faculty in my department. Other faculty have labs in remote locations, so that is not something specially designed to treat me as inferior, but it did annoy me that a lab was used for junk storage for so long when it could have been used as a lab by me or someone else. The previous chair was reluctant to take the lab away from the previous 'owner', but things are looking up with the new chair.

My husband and I have pursued some other opportunities, but so far are not convinced that leaving is the best thing for us to do. The university did a proactive retention for both of us last year, without our asking, so we do have some support from deans etc.

chemcat said...

We have some of the same issues here in my department too. There's a group of students, all from China, who work late at night and use each other's labs freely. I have nothing against it in principle, actually I'm happy my chinese student has a community of peers to talk to and to keep her company when she works late, as long as it's not done at the expense of communication with the PI and my other students. But it has created problems in the past: a colleague had contaminations in her cell culture, I found my lyophylizer in poor conditions, etc. So we had a chat with our students, trying to implement sign-up sheets and other forms of communication, but it hasn't worked very well. Nothing has happened in the past 6 months, but I can forecast a "problem-intervention-better behavior-sloppiness" cycle every year.
Each lab has different keys, and I think that's the minimum standard of safety to adopt. It won't prevent people from using the lab properly. Ideally I'd like a ID sweep. It's a safety measure. Other than that, no objection to free exchange of toys....

Anonymous said...

I am glad to hear that things are better for you institutionally than my hyperbolic impression. (Hyperbole is so completely out of character for me!)

It pisses me off when I think friends are being treated poorly by academic bureaucrats.

Anonymous said...

You are definitely not out of line to mind this. It's the weirdest thing I have heard in a while- it would never occur to me to just stroll in and work in someone else's lab without talking to them first.

Ms.PhD said...

How bizarre. I do suspect that either this person doesn't realize it's not departmental shared equipment (if there is no "FSP's lab" sign on the door) or else has gotten casual permission from friends who work in your lab? Seems simple enough to ask.

But kind of creepy for you, I agree. Sort of like how you would feel if you found out somebody was coming into your house when you're gone during the day. Even if they didn't touch anything or leave any sign of having been there, it feels like a breach of something, maybe territory is the right word for it.

And good for you for annexing otherwise wasted space. I know exactly the sort of thing you mean. My department has lots of wasted space, from the lab that has sat empty for several years since the beloved PI who worked there died (as if it's haunted or something?) to the labs where the tenured PI spreads out his 2-3 last postdocs to take up 10 benches and make it look like there's still work going on there (when they're isn't)... to the empty benches where supposedly new PIs will be working, but they've been empty for 2+ years, while neighboring labs are cramped for bench space or even have to work off of rolling carts. Gotta love it.

As usual, I have to wonder if taxpayers have any idea what goes on in research labs at universities and how much more we could get done if it weren't for all the territory issues.

butterflywings said...

Wow. That is SO not on. I have been a grad student and would never have just used someone else's lab without asking. It's not territorial - you are within your rights to ask what the ^&*% he thinks he is doing.

Arlenna said...

People should never use somebody else's equipment without asking. Who wrote the grants to get the money to pay for the stuff in that lab space? You. So students and postdocs in your group have no right to give permission to randoms for its use, no matter how responsible those randoms are. I would be really ticked off at my group for not checking with me, or directing the person to me.

To the person who said that consulting the PI about permissions obstructs progress: B**S***. Only if the PI is obstructive when asked, and in that case, they are not someone to collaborate with anyway. Most PIs will readily and freely grant reasonable access to collaborators when asked, and asking can be as easy as writing a 10 second email message. It's just common courtesy and how people should treat each others' property and space as human beings. It is unethical to engage in a ninja collaboration by sneaking around using someone else's stuff. There are plenty of counterexamples where the people who do that never give any credit to those who they borrow/steal from.

Anonymous said...

What PhysioProf said is just ridiculous.
Professors cannot move freely from one job to another. They usually have whole bunch of graduate students in research group and those kids are tied up to one particular university and department.
Maybe I will say something inappropriate but I think professors are actually somewhat responsible for their graduate students. It's just heartless to leave them without a degree after years of work.
The whole process of closing a lab in order to start over at the new place gets extremely inconvenient and painful for both students and the professor (drop in productivity etc).
And there is no garantee that the new place will be any better than the old one.

Anonymous said...

Hot topic, FSP!

You have an obligation to manage that space and the people who use it. You don't supervise the postdoc, ergo you can't supervise the postdoc's use of space, ergo the postdoc has to go. And if one of your grad students (for example) informally invited the postdoc to camp for free, that's worse; the grad student should have known better and needs to be corrected.

I look at it this way -- what if data suddenly went missing? If the lab has known, enforced, policies this would be stunning. Well, it should be stunning. If there are postdocs and who knows who else coming by to borrow a desk whenever they work it out with the room occupants, then it's not so stunning for data suddenly to be missing.

The responsibility to run your space is yours. The emotions are completely understandable -- and also optional.

Anonymous said...

What PhysioProf said is just ridiculous. Professors cannot move freely from one job to another.

You may not like it, but this kind of mobility is simply a fact of academia. If you want to improve your standing in academia--more space, more money, higher rank, better parking space, endowed chair, etc--the only way to do so is to convince administrators who control access to these things that they will need to give you these things in order to obtain or retain you.

The main way you convince administrators that they need to give you these things to obtain or retain you is to make a credible case that you would move under the appropriate circumstances. Getting outside offers and making this kind of case happens all the fucking time, and sometimes people do move. At some very prestigious institutions, the unspoken practice is that in order to be awarded tenure, you have to obtain at least one credible outside offer from an institution of similar prestige.

If a faculty member does move, graduate students and other trainees in the lab, depending on the stage of their training, either stay behind and finish up, or move with the faculty member. Either way, arrangements are made and they are taken care of. They are not just "left without a degree after years of work".

It's academia, not a fucking Care Bears tea party!

Female Science Professor said...

Yes, exactly, thanks for the comment. Except now I am going to have nightmares about Care Bears.

EliRabett said...

There are clearly two different cases here. The first is that the postdoc asked no one's permission and is simply walking into the lab. Everyone agrees that that should be stopped.

The second is that the postdoc asked someone in the lab about using it and received informal permission. At most this requires an informal hint from the prof to students/postdocs on both sides that they would like to know about such things so they don't go off at the deep end.

Such collaboration at the student/postdoc level is an important bridge between groups. You never know when you need something from the other side

Doctor Pion said...

No way, although you should first have a group meeting and find out if someone gave permission that wasn't theirs to give.

What if that post doc broke one of your cool toys? Would the grant that pays him [just a guess] pick up the tab? Safety and security alone suggest the need for something like a simplex lock (which offers little in real security but deals with the submaster key problem you have), but the cheapest solution would be a sign saying whose lab it is.

At minimum, the post doc shouldn't be using equipment supported by a different grant without giving credit to you and the grants that pay for your equipment.

Doctor Pion said...

To anonymous 4:53 PM -
I have seen an entire group (PI along with grad students and post docs) pack up and move. It is easier than you might think.

Isis the Scientist said...

I would leave traps. But, I am kind of an ass.

Anonymous said...

I'll bet that there is some misunderstanding on the part of the postdoc. If the lab is on a master key and in a convenient location and has, as you say, "low-tech" equipment of the type that is commonly used by many people in the department, the postdoc may believe that it is a common lab and not necessarily YOUR lab. If you want to restrict access to the lab, then you SHOULD change the keys before it becomes a problem.

When I was a TA in grad school, there were these codes we were supposed to use for the xerox machine when we were making copies. My code was the first 5 digits of my SS# (let's say 12345), so I thought nothing of it. But I did think it was weird that the business office was making such a big deal about the "secret code" and that I had to use a different secret code for each class I taught.

It wasn't until a few years later when I house-sat for the first professor and noticed he had engraved his SS# on his stereo and other things (people did that way back then!) that his first 5 digits were 12354! So the big secret was that the xerox code for faculty members was the first 5 digits of their SS# with the last two flipped. It was pure coincidence that that combination was actually MY SS#!

Anonymous said...

I would leave traps. But, I am kind of an ass.

Spring guns are illegal.

Anonymous said...

It's academia, not a fucking Care Bears tea party!

SHIT. I've been doing it wrong!!!

Anonymous said...

The easy solution is to put a grad student or postdoc in your lab in charge of equipment and responsible for keeping track of it. If another postdoc from a different lab wants to use it, then YOUR student is responsible in making sure that things are done properly. That arrangements gives your lab members the freedom to make collaborations and outside postdocs and grad students comfortable to interact with your lab. Unless you have a very small lab and you yourself are in the lab a few hours a day, many potentially useful collaborations will be missed by having a closed door policy. Also sharing equipment goes both ways. Your students may want to get outside postdocs help later on. Going nuclear on that postdoc doesn't help anybody.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. . . . . I think people are going a bit overboard concerning this entire topic. It's most likely that 1) the post-doc was given permission by one of FSPs students or 2) as the key entry is open access the post-doc assumed, albeit incorrectly, that the lab space was free to use. Honestly, I'm guessing it was option number 1. I'm curious to see if that's what happened.

I am at a loss, however, that even if post-doc was granted permission from FSP to use the equipment in the lab how that would correlate to scientific publications between post-doc and FSP. A very simple solution to this problem would be to post a sign on the door stating that the lab space and equipment inside is property of FSP lab and all inquiries for use should be directed to FSP.

I was a grad student at a university with quite an open door policy concerning chemical borrowing and equipment sharing it doesn't seem the least bit odd to me that a post-doc would ask a person in the lab for use. Any time I needed to use a piece of equipment from another lab, I usually contacted the grad student that I knew to be in charge of said instrument. I wouldn't have ever even of thought to talk to the PI.

I normally agree or empathize with most of the posts on this blog but in this particular instance I think that you, FSP, are being entirely too uptight and control freakish about this. But as this seems to be a serious problem for you, I would definitely suggest getting the open key access business taken care of immediately. God forbid one of your students gave someone else in the department the okay to use something in that lab and you didn't know about it.

Question. Have you ever specifically told your students that nothing is to be used by other students/post-docs without your express permission? Cause I know I wouldn't even think twice about letting someone from another lab use a run of the mill piece of equipment without clearing it with my advisor first. In fact, my advisor would be rather annoyed if students from different labs bothered him with such trivial requests.

B said...

to di-miz
I see your point and as a graduate student I've let others borrow some equipment without prior PI approval, but I know that space issues are another can of worms due to security concerns and their being held responsible if something happens in their space. (even if they didn't know someone was there working at the time) So for those issues I always refer the person to my PI to check with. I'm just a worker bee it's the PI's lab after all.

Arlenna said...

d-miz, as somebody on the cusp between the two worlds of being the PI and being the postdoc, I can relate to not wanting to bother grouchy PIs with so-called trivial questions about equipment use.

BUT if you have ever been responsible for (and required the unimpeded function of) instruments that people have come in without training and/or permission to use and BROKEN because of that lack of training (like I have with the MALDI mass specs at my institution), you'd change your outlook on it pretty quickly.

There's nothing worse than going to run your experiment and finding that some dumbass messed around with the machine and f'ed it up. If it was my machine that my grant money had bought, rather than "just" one I was put in charge of by my PI, I would scream at people. There's no way a PI knows somebody isn't a dumbass until they meet them and they demonstrate non-dumbassitude.

Grouchy PIs who don't want to know about that kind of detail can have their machines broken all they want, I guess. Then they can yell at their own students and postdocs (who lazily let some random use stuff without proper supervision and training) for losing productivity because of it, and everybody gets what they deserve.

EliRabett said...

Lauri, clearly there is a difference between a MALDI which requires a fair amount of training to use and costs what $150K? and run of the mill stuff.

Arlenna said...

Not really when it comes to needing your equipment to be in working order and not messed with by someone, whether it's a gel box or a standard UV-Vis spec or even your pipettors. In FSP's particular situation, she's lucky this person doesn't mess stuff up, and therefore the only transgression is the basic discourtesy of not asking, but the principle behind the problem is the potential for who-knows-what to be going on which is equally problematic for the researchers with everyday as well as specialized equipment.

EliRabett said...

Laurie, yes really. (MALDI's are bad examples because they are really simple. A top of the line NMR where some idiot blows the liquid helium, or a fingerprint on a diffraction grating, there is something to scream about).

I suspect you are coming at things from the standpoint of someone on the bio-medical side. FSP (I also suspect) and I are more physics/engineering, where you expect to fix things, indeed that becomes one of the important skills you are trying to teach your students.

In any case, as FSP put the case, this post-doc is careful with the instruments, cleans up and generally knows what is what so having him do a wrecking job on the lab appears to not be very realistic.

Anonymous said...

We often grant access to our labs and equipment to graduate students and post-docs from other groups. My boss has never really given us formal permission to do so, but it is common in our department. I agree that this practice encourages collaborations among research groups to a greater extent than the endless meetings between faculty that normally amount to just that.