Debbie Knight

Archive for October, 2012|Monthly archive page

Whatever you do, be passionate!

In observation on October 19, 2012 at 12:20 pm

Overheard while standing in line for lunch:
“They gave me $40, but I would’ve taken $5. All I care about is linguistics.”

I’m not sure if the guy standing in line ahead of me was a tutor, a consultant or a young enthusiastic professor, but he said the above statement with passion.

Now, as a biologist, I’ll admit I don’t know much about linguistics. But I do understand about being passionate about what you do and not really caring how much you get paid to do it — you know, as long as the bills get paid (you have to be practical, after all).

In fact, that passion has kept me in an academic research lab for over 20 years — often times, for little pay. And, yes, there were times early in my career when I had to moonlight to make ends meet. But I’m not complaining. I find research engaging. And, on most days, I find its challenges rewarding.

I admire this young man’s enthusiasm. I hope it drives him and serves him well throughout his career.

Photo of the Week

In photo log on October 17, 2012 at 11:27 am

I saw this sign in a research building. Although not specified, I’m pretty sure the sign means gloves worn in the laboratory setting and not wooly winter gloves.

Clearly someone has worn lab gloves in the elevator more than once — enough times to motivate someone to write a message in red capital letters — and bolded, underlined for emphasis.

This is a big no-no in the lab safety world. Lab gloves are not meant to be worn in non-lab (or “common”) areas like hallways, offices, stairwells and elevators.

Why? What’s the big deal?

Well, scientists wear gloves to protect themselves from chemicals and biological reagents in the lab. They also wear them to protect experiments — our skin has many things on it that can contaminate a sensitive assay.

So, here’s a scientist, straight from the lab, touching all sorts of doors and buttons that everyone touches. You see a person wandering around in the hallway or getting on the elevator donned in gloves and you wonder what sorts of lab stuff is on those gloves. Sure the gloves could be “clean,” just put on by the researcher. But only the researcher knows that.

Of course, hallways and elevators aren’t the only problem areas. I’ve seen people wear their lab coat (and gloves) into public restrooms. Not the brightest thing to do. Those researchers risk getting all kinds of bathroom germs on their lab coat (germs that could contaminate their  experiments). But, more importantly, that lab coat also drags possible contaminants (chemical, biological or radioactive) from the lab into the restroom. Now everyone has been unwittingly exposed to lab “stuff.”

As unbelievable as it sounds, a sign had to be posted on the restroom doors on our floor to remind people to check their lab coats, gloves, and masks at the door.

These safety rules are supposedly taught to all lab personnel.

Apparently someone didn’t get the memo.

Got a blunder wonder in the lab? There’s an award for that!

In Uncategorized on October 11, 2012 at 9:00 am

With the Nobel Prize going out to various recipients this month, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about the much less prestigious “Dumbass Award.”

Truth be told, I was rummaging around on my computer for a photo and I stumbled upon the completely forgotten “dumbass award.”

A relic of a former lab.

We had a pretty big lab crew. And we were a pretty jolly group.

I can’t remember the specific event that lead to the invention of this award, but one seasoned lab member made a truly rookie mistake that messed up her experiment.
(Please note: it wasn’t me)
This lab member was probably called something like dumbass.
(Yes, it’s not exactly politically correct, but we were a close group, we often referred to each other in such loving terms)
And then some jokester thought it would be a good idea to invent an award for the blunder wonder. Hence the birth of the Dumbass Award.

Let me first say that humans work in the lab. We don’t intentionally set out to make mistakes, but they happen. It’s easy to forget to perform an experimental step, forget to dilute a solution, etc.

Some mistakes are recoverable. Others are not.

But not all mistakes are bad. Sometimes it leads to a “eureka!” moment. Admittedly rare,  it can happen.

More often, the mistake will tank an experiment.

But it takes more than just your garden variety mistake to earn the “dumbass award.” For this award, it needs to be a stupid mistake that is typically witnessed by someone else. After all, no one in their right mind would willingly admit they did something to earn this “auspicious” award.

Receiving the award strongly motivated the awardee to find someone else who deserved it more. No one wanted the award, let alone keep it.

While it wasn’t created to do so, it improved lab efficiency to some degree. Perhaps it increased awareness.

I don’t remember why, but the dumbass award was eventually retired.
Perhaps the same people earned it over and over again.
(Yes, I might have been a recipient a couple of times)
Perhaps people moved on.

But for whatever reason, the award now sits on my computer’s hard drive. And I think I’m happy to let it stay there, reminding me to make every experiment count.

Besides, my lab mate didn’t seem too excited about resurrecting it.

Poster presentation? No sweat if you keep it short!

In observation on October 10, 2012 at 2:42 pm

I stumbled across a blog post addressed to people who present posters at a scientific meeting. Specifically, if the presenter is asked to give a 5-minute summary of their poster, it shouldn’t take 20 minutes.

This made me think of all the posters I’ve presented at scientific meetings. I was often asked for a brief overview of my poster by a person who stopped by. Was I able to give that overview in 5-minutes or less? The answer: it all depends if I practiced my spiel or not.

I’m not a “natural” at public speaking — even if it’s to an audience of one or two. So I need practice. Lots and lots of practice.

I practice alone in a room — a lot! And, yes, to the casual observer it looks like I’m having an animated conversation with myself.  A good reason to find a room with a door that locks.

I practice in front of my lab mates.

And I practice at least once in front of my boss.

The practice really helped fine-tune the presentation. I know exactly what I’m going to say, rather than stumbling around trying to find the point. Not knowing what to say can add minutes to a brief presentation.

I don’t use a script.  I want my presentation to sound conversational and organic.  I use the figures on the poster as my prompts. If I need an additional diagram to help me explain things, I add it. I find this a better solution than interpretive dance, smoke signals or wild hand gestures.

And, sure, I  talk myself into a corner sometimes. But I  also figure how to get back to the point. This makes for good mental gymnastics before the actual presentation.

The practice hones and polishes the presentation to a professional sheen. By the time I finish, my spiel actually sounds smooth, confident and authoritative — all the things I’m typically not in this situation.

I know. This seems like a lot of work for a 5-minute presentation. It is. And the more times you give presentations, the easier it gets.

Just remember, your poster is one in a sea of posters. You (and your poster) need to really shine to draw the crowds. So keep it short, keep it sweet. If they want to know more, don’t worry … they’ll ask.

Photo of the Week

In photo log on October 3, 2012 at 11:23 am

I felt a little like a librarian yesterday — only in reverse. Instead of shelving scientific journals, I was placing them on the cart and hauling them to the recycling bin.

Our conference room, once lined with bookshelves filled with journals, is to be converted to office space. I was tasked with removing the journals.

Among the journals, there was one called “Modern Pathology.” And with the most recent copy from 1999, a smile came to my face as I thought perhaps they are now “not-so-modern pathology.”

As I was throwing the journals in the recycling dumpster, I couldn’t help but think of all the energy and effort that went into making and shipping each volume. The pride each researcher had when his or her article was finally in print. Or how many of those volumes had groundbreaking research reported inside. And how that research stood the test of time.

New faculty member perhaps a bit short-sighted?

In observation on October 2, 2012 at 2:40 pm

Overheard in the hallway between a new faculty member and a student:
“I don’t like to work with volunteers in my lab.”

Wow. I’m sure glad that Dr. K didn’t feel that way when I asked him if he could use a student volunteer in his lab.

I was just starting my junior year at PurdueUniversity, majoring in biology. I would tell my friends that I wanted to “do research” but I had little idea what that meant.

One of my friends strongly encouraged me to find a lab in which to work. And by “strongly encouraged,” I mean shoved.

Looking back, I thank Chris for his tough love because it got me my start in a research career. But at the time, my timid undergraduate self did not appreciate it so much.

I remember meeting with Dr. K in his office, quivering in my Reeboks. One of his office doors opened to the lab and I couldn’t help but gawk.

This was the first time I had ever seen a functioning research lab.  Everything was new and wondrous. From jumble of pipes and nozzles jutting from the polished black soapstone benches to the array of strange glassware that lined the shelves, I was instantly awed by the thought that “science” happened here.

I’m glad that he was  open to a student volunteer. An extra set of hands in a lab with limited funding.  While it would cost him (and his graduate student) the time to train me, it turned out to be a good investment. I came to realize that I loved working in a research lab and he got free labor.

When summer came, he hired me as a part-time student research assistant. I continued to work in his lab even after I graduated with a bachelor degree. He then hired me as a full-time technician.

So, I think this new faculty member might be a bit shortsighted by not allowing volunteers to work in his lab.

You never know where it might lead.