Wednesday, September 26, 2007

When the Levee Breaks

Plug it as best you can and keep going.

This is probably the best, and only advice I would have to give to an emerging scientist. This is also the most valuable lesson I have learned over the years from my various mentors. I don't think it was explicitly stated as such, and certainly not in the words of Led Zeppelin, but it was a strong message I got.

I did my Ph.D. in a fairly unusual situation. I was one of very very few students where I was, in a very postdoc-heavy environment. Some of the labs in Ph.D. place didn't had only postdocs and technicians. It was an intimidating environment in the beginning, especially when I was a mousy first-year. But what happened over they years is that I ended up having a plethora of mentors.

I learned how to do FACS from one postdoc, dissect mice from another, inject mice from yet another. I developed a deep respect for "bullshit detectors" and a strong seminar habit (which I really don't get enough of here), learned to ask "Why?" instead of "How?". I learned to think ahead, to plan for figures, to never run out of mice. I learned how to deflect tantrums, how to stand up for myself, how to speak at conferences, all from my Ph.D. advisor and various postdoc mentors. I didn't really have any interaction with student peers, didn't have a student milieu, but it turned out to be a phenomenal experience overall.

Not that it was all happy days and everybody being helpful. But when times were hard and feelings were hurt, the people I really admire kept going. They put their heads down, ignored their feelings of being neglected by the boss, ignored ridicule from other lab members (yes, ridicule) and kept working, and working smart. That's the best thing to do- let the work speak for itself. Don't let yourself drown when the levees break. Swim.

Some of the nicest people were the most useless as mentors and some of the most seemingly curmudgeonly the best mentors. The hard lessons are not learned easily. The mentors I have the most respect for now, in retrospect, are those who told it like it was. Directness can be unpalatable, but it is the only way to clarity, scientific and otherwise.

Another thing I feel strongly about is that you have to pass mentoring on. If you have been treated well, you have to treat people well. If you have not, you have to be extra vigilant not to take it out on people who you will be mentoring. Everyone starts somewhere and impatience is absolutely incompatible with mentoring. This may be seem obvious, yet it is surprisingly easy to forget.

Its easy to resent time taken away from experiments, its easy to be annoyed by constant interruptions, I certainly am. That doesn't mean that one should indulge that annoyance.

So as a mentor, I want to be direct, firm, hopefully gentle, accessible. But most of all, I would like to be constructively critical, and pass on the importance of a bullshit detector. Let's see.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Communication Breakdown

I'm having some writer's block, partly because I have resolved not to complain and partly because the postdoc work curve is on the upswing. Up up towards the ceiling, a good thing overall except for the constant ambivalence towards said work.

Anyway, to make this more fun, October is Led Zeppelin song titles month. I'm going post with Led Zeppelin song titles and incorporate the title into the post. It should serve to repair the communication breakdown (see?) of this past month. Oh, and did I mention that the posts will continue to be about postdoc-ing and Immunology? Let's see how it goes-I see vistas opening up. No quarter, Over the hills and far away, Rambling on, the Battle of Evermore... If you have a song you'd like to challenge me with, go ahead, leave me a comment.

So the major work upswing has been because my boss and I have somehow resolved a major communication breakdown. I have been miserable here because I have been feeling underappreciated and fundamentally not respected. By my boss. Also, said boss has also been dismissive of my ideas and has not been receptive to me branching off on my own or following my instinctive interests, which are in infectious diseases and has been pushing me to work on boss's own interests, which are classical and molecular.

Suddenly boss is listening to me. And seems ok with, even very mildly encouraging of my pursuing something at the juncture of infectious disease and classical immunology. Not too much improvement in the overt respect and appreciation department, but that may be a function of temperament. I am flabbergasted, and thrilled! It's a little sad what I consider an improvement, given the aforementioned lack or R&A. But I'll take anything!

What caused this? Is it because I stood up for myself? Mildly and politely, but I did. Is it because I was direct and stated (repeatedly) that while all the classical stuff was all very well but since it is the boss's thing I couldn't possibly take it with me to start my own lab (if and when)? Because I said that I was interested in this and would like to take it with me? Because what I am suggesting will be a hot thing to put in grants? Because the boss is happier with life and therefore finds it easier to interact with us?

A combination of these I think, with grants and mood probably higher on the list than the rest. Food for thought, complaining does not achieve much, communicating does. Hm.


Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Rights of Native Indigenous Peoples

The UN just passed a non-binding declaration supporting the rights of native indigenous peoples. 143 members of the general assembly voted for it, 11 abstained and 4 voted against: USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.