Monday, November 29, 2004


The Doktah occasionally used the lab’s acetone to remove her nail polish. One time, her nose itched during the removal, so scratched it. Unfortunately, she scratched it with the hand holding the acetone-soaked paper towel, and she nearly passed out.

When she told me about it, I asked her if she’d been drinking. “What?” she said.

“Well, it is Friday,” I replied. I only meant to point out that we had just come from group meeting, at which we were supplied with beer because it was the only way to get people to come, but instead I implied that she is a lush.

“Touche,” she replied.

Wow, that’s really coo-… er, interesting!

For reasons which are no longer clear to me, The Doktah, Jersey Girl and I made up fake middle names for ourselves and for Baseball Cap Guy. Actually, it may have been just The Doktah and Jersey Girl. I forget mine, but Baseball Cap Guy’s was “Fritz,” The Doktah’s was “Juanita” (pronounced “Juanitaaaahhh”), and Jersey Girl’s was “Tellulah.” And for reasons which are clear only to me, The Doktah, and Jersey Girl, we found this hilarious.

The week that we came up with the middle names, I was giving a chalk talk. (Chalk talks were interdepartmental mini-seminars, ostensibly presented as a lecture with informal chalk notes, but which were actually always Powerpoint presentations.) So in my acknowledgements slide, I put The Doktah’s, Jersey Girl’s, and Baseball Cap Guy’s fake middle initials instead of their real ones.

The Doktah was in the audience, and I had her in stitches. She could barely contain herself. Her friend was sitting next to her, and he leaned over to ask her what why she was laughing. “Because!” she gasped. “Those aren’t our real middle initials!

Yeah, I know. But chalk talks were on Fridays, and sometimes, the weeks could be really long, so you took what funny you could get. And also, we’re gi-normous geeks. I was just talking to The Doktah tonight on the phone, and she said something about how anytime she or I thinks something is cool, it’s really not. We should therefore always describe cool things as “interesting.”

But we both still laugh at the middle names. C'mon, Tellulah? That’s GOLD!

A family story

Disclaimer: This story is for any of my relatives who may be reading this. It's not about grad school.

Last month, Big Sister #1, her family, The Husband and I went to Big Sister #4's house to watch Game 1 of the World Series. During the game, there was some debate about the abbreviations for the team names in Fox's info bar on the top of the screen. Big Sister #1 said, "How come the 'BOS' and 'STL' are both red? Weren't the 'BOS' and 'NYY' different colors during the playoffs?"

Brother-in-law #4 said, "Maybe they change the color of the team who wins, and you're just remembering what you saw on SportsCenter."

I don't know which is funnier, the thought of Big Sister #1 watching SportsCenter, or Brother-in-law #4's assuming that she does.

Jon Stewart is not stupid

Disclaimer: I realize I owe you a second story about the dentist. I’ve been trying to write it, but frankly, I’m not that interested in it right now. So you’ll have to wait.

Back in the day, the Doktah and I used to watch clips from The Daily Show on We used to watch during lunch. Yeah. During lunch.

Anyway, one time we were watching with Smelly Lunch Guy. (So nicknamed because he used to buy very, um, “aromatic” lunches and throw out the refuse in the lab trash which only got picked up twice a week. I don’t know what it was that he ate, but my best guess would be skunk.) The clip that we watched that day was from an episode with a guest host filling in for Jon Stewart. This was the second or third day in a row with a guest host, and they couldn’t quite fill Jon Stewart’s shoes. Apparently, Smelly Lunch Guy felt the same way.

“I don’t like these guest hosts,” he said. “They’re stupid. Not like Jon Stewart; he’s not stupid. The other people are stupid, but Jon Stewart is not stupid.” He appeared to be really struggling to put his complex thoughts into words, but that was all he could come up with. “The guest hosts are stupid. They’re not like Jon Stewart. Jon Stewart is not stupid.” Over and over again, with longer and longer pauses as he searched for the perfect adjective. “I like Jon Stewart better, because he’s not… stupid. But the guest hosts are… stupid.”

So there you have it. But I can’t think of a way to end this that is not… stupid.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Big Sister: You probably won't get this one

I once spent about 15 minutes looking around the lab for isopropyl alcohol, but all I could find was 2-propanol.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

I never used to be afraid of the dentist: Part 1

When I got to grad school, I finally had to give up my childhood dentist, Dr. Awesome. I kept going to him through college, using Christmas break and the summer vacation as opportunities to get my teeth cleaned, but in grad school there is no summer vacation, and my childhood dentist was a seven hour drive away, and wasn’t covered by my insurance. So it was time to find a new dentist.

But how do you find one? There’s really no way to tell how a dentist is until you go. So I chose based on location and whether or not I could be seen before I grew old. With Dr. Awesome, I could make an appointment a mere month in advance, so I was unprepared for the typical 6-month appointment queues at most dentists offices, and I was already overdue for a cleaning. Due to these difficulties, I ended up with an appointment with a dentist right around the corner from my apartment.

When I mentioned the appointment to The Doktah, her eyes widened in shock. “You made an appointment with Dr. Pain?” she gasped.

“Umm.. I don’t know,” I said nervously. “Is he at 19th and Pine?”

“Yes!” she said. “I went to him for a cleaning last year.” She gazed at me with pity. “You should go to someone else.”

But I was stuck, because of the 6-month queue everywhere else, combined with the huge hassle it was to get the insurance issue sorted out. Most offices won’t make an appointment until you are listed in The Insurance Binder, and you can only get listed in The Insurance Binder once a month. When you add this to the 6-months, you end up with a 7-month wait to see the dentist. So I could change my dentist right after my cleaning, but for now, I was out of luck.

The morning of my appointment, I approached Dr. Pain’s office with a feeling of trepidation. “He’s probably not that bad,” I told myself. I was further reassured by the patient who was putting on her coat as I was leaving. “This is your first apointment?” she asked. “You’re in luck! Dr. Pain is the best!”

She seemed so pleased and happy, I decided that The Doktah must be pain-sensitive or something. “I mean, it’s only a cleaning!” I thought. “How painful could it be?”

Well. Pretty painful, as it turns out. Dr. Pain spent the next thirty minutes jamming sharp metal instruments into my gums and dragging them back out again, trailing little pieces of my gums along behind. I don’t know what was going on in there, but I was spitting blood for the rest of the day, and well into the night. I was still young enough that it didn’t occur to me to tell him to stop; doctors and dentists were still intimidating authority figures. (That fades a little when you start going out to bars with doctors and medical students.)

But at least I had clean teeth (once my gums stopped bleeding), which gave me a 6-month window in which to find a new dentist. To be discussed in Part 2.

Monday, November 22, 2004


The following post is a rewrite of the one about Baseball Cap Guy and the stamps. I fixed the ending so that it's funnier since the original post just sort of ends with no punchline. I debated reposting over the original one, but I decided to go with a new post. So I just wanted to explain why it's there again.

It's not the 37 cents (edit)

During my stint in grad school, there was a period of several months when Baseball Cap Guy borrowed stamps. Now, I’m not saying that he needed a stamp every now and then, I’m saying that he used me and The Doktah as his own personal post office. Whenever he needed to mail something he always seemed to be “out of stamps.” Granted, he always offered to pay for the stamps he was asking for.

The last straw came when I came back from lunch to find Baseball Cap Guy rooting through my desk drawer. “What are you doing?” I gasped.

“I was out of stamps and I thought you kept them in there,” he said sheepishly.

I rolled my eyes and sighed. “You know what, Baseball Cap Guy?” I said. “They’ll sell stamps to anyone! You don’t need a license or have to fill out a request form or anything!”

“I’ll pay you for it,” Baseball Cap Guy offered, with a guilty look on his face. Because that was clearly what was bothering me. Yes, Baseball Cap Guy’s incessant pestering for help in mailing letters was beginning to grate. Yes, it was annoying to have to schlep down to the post office one stamp sooner. And yes, Baseball Cap Guy had violated my personal space by going through my desk without my permission. But, man! Those stamps are worth 37 cents!

Friday, November 19, 2004

Battle of the bands

One of the labs where I interviewed for a postdoc position had a no-music policy. At first I thought that this seemed harsh, but then I considered the music policy of our lab, which was to put on something you like when you have the chance.

So what kind of music did we end up listening to? It depended on the DJ. Baseball Cap Guy liked to use Winamp to put his playlist on repeat. The trouble here was that Baseball Cap Guy’s playlist had about 25 songs. Which he put on random repeat. For hours. Sometimes he’d put them on random repeat and then leave. With random repeat, some songs get played more often than others and it got so bad that, even today, hearing “Monkey Wrench” by the Foo Fighters makes The Doktah break out into a cold sweat.

The P.I. was just as bad. Worse, even. He didn’t have any mp3’s on his computer, so he had to rely on the CD player, and The P.I. was just as fond of repeat as Baseball Cap Guy, but a CD typically only has about 17 songs. On repeat. But, most annoying of all, The P.I. had a copy of Chumbawumba’s “Tubthumping” single. The single! And he put it on repeat! For days at a time! Days!

When a single song is played that often, it sort of gets into your subconscious and you don’t even realize it’s playing anymore, so no one would shut it off. The P.I. would turn it on at night when he was in the lab by himself and then leave it on when he went home, so the first person in the lab the next morning would think it had just been turned on, and then would get sucked in. Whenever I noticed that it had been playing for so long, I would stop it, but for some reason I was the only one. Everyone else was subdued by the Power of the CD Player. It’s rude to just turn off someone’s choice of music, so nobody did.

When The Doktah joined the lab, she took a stand and put a piece of tape on the CD player labeled, “P.I.: Do not touch this button.” There was an arrow pointing to the “repeat” button. That worked for awhile, but at some point I think we had to hide “Tubthumping.”

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

It's just not ethical

Somewhere around my second or third year, I found out that all biological researchers at the University were supposed to attend a laboratory safety lecture. It wasn’t anything we were excited to do, but we went. Or, at least, the few of us in the room when we found out about the training went. More on this later.

So there we sat, The Doktah, Grouchy Guy, and I, trapped in a room and learning how to properly dispose of chemicals. The subject of human blood came up, and we learned where to throw out contaminated tubes, syringes, etc. Naturally, we were told that you should always wear gloves when working with another person’s blood.

The Doktah, who did experiments on blood but often used her own, raised her hand. “What if you’re working with your own blood?”

The trainer stiffened. “It’s unethical to use your own blood in experiments.” We were confused, and someone asked why. “I don’t want to get into it. It just is. It’s unethical to use your own blood.” We tried to ask more about it, but she just kept repeating that it was unethical and that she couldn’t get into it. She absolutely refused to tell us why, and we were never able to figure it out. Perhaps she though The P.I. was forcing The Doktah to withdraw pints of her own blood on a regular basis, but The Doktah only needed a drop at a time. A pinprick was all. So, unethical? Does anyone out there know why? And the trainer seemed very uncomfortable about the whole thing. Maybe someone once forced her to withdraw pints of her own blood on a regular basis.

Aside: The Doktah used my blood (she wore gloves) on occasion. Again, she only needed a drop from a fingerprick. One day, she asked me if she could have some blood, and warned me that she would need more than usual. “I’m afraid I’m going to need 10 mL this time.”

“From my finger?!?” I said. 10 mL was easily 1000 times more than a fingerprick. Instead of a tiny drop of blood, she was asking me for a test-tube full. Which is not easy to get out of a finger.

“No! I mean 10 microliters! Microliters!” she said, hastily. So, two drops instead of the usual one. Which I could deal with.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The next thing you know you’re wearing a puffy shirt on national television

One of the undergraduates in our lab was a “low-talker,” just like that pirate-shirt woman on Seinfeld. For the purposes of this blog, I shall give this undergraduate the nickname “7UP” because he already had a nickname that was just as silly.

So, like I said, 7UP was a “low talker.” On many many occassions, I would ask 7UP a question, say for example, “Hey, 7UP. What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” 7UP would reply, “I’m going home to my mom’s for dinner.” The rest of the conversation would go like this:

ME: What?

7UP: I’m going home to my mom’s for dinner.

ME: I’m sorry?

7UP: I said I’m going home to my mom’s for dinner.

ME: 7UP, I can’t hear you. Can you speak up?

7UP: I said I’m going home to my mom’s for dinner.

ME: [nod and smile]

I found this very frustrating. It didn’t matter so much if I was just making small talk, as in the above example, but sometimes 7UP would ask me a more important question, such as where to put reagents, or something, and it would be 10 minutes of me saying “What? What? Put the what in the where? For the love of God, man, SPEAK UP!”

But there was more to 7UP than just low-talking. 7UP was a white Jewish boy from Princeton who worked out, read philosophy, and listened to Snoop Doggy Dog. Once, 7UP was trying to help me understand a pop culture reference by saying, “You know, like on Snoop’s new album.” (I’m sorry, I mean that he said, “You know, like on Snoop’s new album.” And for any readers who have not met me, let’s just say that me and Snoop’s new album – not so much familiar.) But 7UP’s admiration for Snoop faded, and 7UP was once heard to say, very gravely, “Doktah, I’m not even sure I know who Snoop is anymore.”

The Doktah once asked 7UP if he could feed her cells for her one day when she wasn’t going to be in the lab. The next day, The Doktah found a note: “Doktah, I hope that feeding cells is the same thing as splitting cells, because that’s what I did.” Well, they’re not the same thing, and all the cells died because they were too sparse. Not such an unreasonable mistake except that both Baseball Cap Guy and I had been sitting right there, and 7UP could easily have asked.

7UP was also very skittish. A simple “Hey, how’s it going,” would make 7UP start dramatically. He would react as though someone had snuck up on him, grabbed his shoulders, and screamed in his ear. I don’t know why, maybe everyone in his family is a low talker, so anything louder than this sounded like a shout to 7UP.

I mentioned that 7UP worked out. And boy did he. One summer day, 7UP arrived at the lab, sweaty and shirtless with a heart rate monitor strapped to his chest. He had just been biking. He opened the lab door, took off his headphones and said, in a sultry voice, “I gotta take a shower.” Then he left, presumably to take a shower. I guess he just wanted to keep us apprised.

Friday, November 12, 2004

It's not the 37 cents

During my stint in grad school, there was a period of several months when Baseball Cap Guy borrowed stamps. Now, I’m not saying that he needed a stamp every now and then, I’m saying that he used me and The Doktah as his own personal post office. Every time he needed to mail something he was “out of stamps” and asked one of us if he could buy one off us.

So you see, it wasn’t that Baseball Cap Guy was too cheap to buy stamps. It was that he was too lazy. But The Doktah and I were becoming increasingly annoyed by the incessant stamp borrowing, and it wasn’t the loss of 37 cents that was bothering us. We didn’t like schlepping down to the post office any more than Baseball Cap Guy did.

The last straw came when I came back from lunch to find Baseball Cap Guy rooting through my desk drawer. “What are you doing?” I gasped.

“I was out of stamps and I thought you kept them in there,” he said sheepishly.

I rolled my eyes and sighed. “You know what, Baseball Cap Guy?” I said. “They’ll sell stamps to anyone! You don't even need a license!”

From that day forward, Baseball Cap Guy bought his own stamps, and The Doktah and I teased him mercilessly and endlessly about it.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

This is why they named that game “Telephone”

One time, an educational video company decided to make a video about The P.I. and the science performed in our lab. But The P.I. was a very busy guy, so it was tricky to schedule the shooting dates. Then, a few days before the film crew was due to arrive, The P.I. got laryngitis. (This happens at least once every autumn. Although The P.I. keeps vitamins on his desk, he can’t seem to grasp that you have to actually ingest the vitamins for them to have an effect.) So the rest of the lab had to answer all the phone calls and suggest email as a better means of communication.

At one point, Grouchy Guy answered the phone, and it was the video director. Grouchy Guy told her that The P.I. couldn’t come to the phone because of the laryngitis, and that they would have to reschedule the shooting date. The director was instantly sympathetic. She assured Grouchy Guy that she would of course call back in a week or so, and to please convey her condolences to The P.I. In fact, she seemed a little overly sympathetic. But Grouchy Guy just shrugged it off.

A little while later, I answered the phone. It was the video director asking for an address to which she could send The P.I. flowers. “Huh? Why are you sending him flowers?” I asked.

“Didn’t his wife die?” she asked.

“What? No!” I said.

Now she was confused. “I called before, and I was told that The P.I. has lost his wife.”

A light dawned. “No! His voice! He lost his voice!” There was much relief and laughter.

Never before have I lived the plot of a sitcom episode.

I think one should be plenty

So one December, The Doktah, Baseball Cap Guy, Jersey Girl and I were preparing to go to DC for a four-day Cell Biology conference. Jersey Girl and I were discussing what we should bring, and she asked for some packing advice.

“How many coats should I bring?” she said.

I laughed at her, because at the time, I only owned one coat. “Um, one, I think.” I reminded her the conference was only for four days. “One should do it.”

She brought two.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Buffy vs. Grad School

Disclaimer: This post contains a spoiler for Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In the sixth year of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy returned from the dead. For the first several episodes of the season, Buffy was wandering around in a daze, not very happy with things. The Doktah, well known for ruining twist endings by figuring them out way way way before I do, said, "I bet she was in heaven."

Although it seems stupid now (because after seeing the reruns, they were practically screaming that Buffy was in heaven), I argued with her. "Maybe not," I said. "Maybe she's just confused because she was dead for 3 months."

The Doktah made the case that she had to have been taken from heaven and not a hell dimension. "Look, even if she is confused, she'd at least be saying, 'Yay! I'm not in hell anymore!'" The Doktah said. "You know, like how we are when we're not in lab."

Yay! I'm not in lab anymore!

I know it, just give me a second...

In order to get stuff from the chemistry stockroom, we had to fill out a form with a 16 or 20 digit grant number. I got tired of copying down the number to bring with me every time, so I tried to memorize it. I thought I had it, so I gave the number to Bitter Guy and asked him to check if I was right as I repeated it.

The number looked something like this:

I began my recitation with, “Um, 7…”

Apparently, I didn't quite have it down.

Friday, November 05, 2004

First, put all of the orange M&Ms into groups

So far, I’ve used this blog to make fun of other people. But lest I be accused of throwing stones inside my glass house, I want to share a story about me.

There are words that I think I know the meaning of because I have heard and/or read the word many times, but when asked to actually define it, I discover that I have no idea what it means. Then there are words that I think I know the meaning of, and when asked to define it, I go right ahead. Which can cause problems.

It was during a seminar. Some professor or other was droning on about cancer and cells and… I don’t know. I wasn’t really listening. The Doktah was sitting next to me, and about ten minutes into the talk, she leaned over and whispered, “What does ‘attenuate’ mean?” (The Doktah somehow always managed to listen to talks unless they were about bioinformatics. No one can listen to a talk about bioinformatics. Trust me on this.)

I paused for a second or two. “Attenuate, attenuate,” I thought to myself. I knew I had heard the word before many times. A dim light went off in my head somewhere, and I whispered back to The Doktah, “I think it means, ‘to put into groups.’”

As you are no doubt aware, “attenuate” actually means “to lessen or decrease”. But I sounded quite sure of myself, so The Doktah took me at my word and spent the remaining 50 minutes of the talk struggling to understand why the speaker and her lab group were so excited about putting cancer symptoms into groups.

Now, it’s possible that The Doktah may have eventually stopped making fun of me for this error, were it not for what happened later that very same day. I had gone over to The Doktah’s house to have dinner and watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Aside: The Doktah is an excellent cook who is quite capable of making up new recipes with ingredients on hand. But everyone makes mistakes. The lesson learned that night: Don’t simmer chicken with berries. No one wants purple meat.) After dinner, The Doktah broke out a giant bag of M&Ms for dessert. After a few handfuls, The Doktah said, “Don’t they make orange M&Ms anymore? I haven’t seen any yet.”

“There are no orange M&M’s,” I said, scornfully. “There have never been orange M&Ms. They’re not Skittles!” I laughed at her pitiful grasp of the M&M spectrum and The Doktah hung her head, ashamed and embarrassed.

Needless to say, on her next handful, The Doktah pulled out about 20 orange M&Ms. Because of course there are orange M&Ms. There have always been orange M&Ms. Remember that commercial? If you eat an orange one, you get to third base! (Eat a green one, and you’ll hit the ball downtown.)

I have no idea why I thought they did not exist, but I was so positive. And I have yet to live it down, nor do I deserve to.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Sometimes, things don’t match

I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me why I gave Bitter Guy that particular pseudonym. Well, actually I can tell you. None. But I figure that’s only because people are smart enough to guess that it’s because he was bitter. And boy was he bitter. Bitter Guy’s curve was completely off the charts:

Bitter Guy's Chart Posted by Hello

When I left the lab, his bitterness had yet to decrease. But why was he so bitter? Well, I think it’s because Bitter Guy and The. P.I. didn’t so much… get along. Rumor has it that while Bitter Guy was deep in the throes of finalizing his thesis from home, The P.I. made him come in and clean out his desk to make room for new students. Apparently this horrified everyone but Bitter Guy, who took it in stride. Maybe his apathy is finally kicking in.

This was not the first time Bitter Guy’s desk was a point of contention between him and The P.I. In my last entry, I foreshadowed a confrontation between Bitter Guy and The P.I. regarding: The Too-Brown Desk.

During one of our many lab desk reshuffling, Bitter Guy ended up with more of a desk-slot than an actual desk. The problem was that all of the available desks had drawers on the right side, but because of a door next to his desk-slot, Bitter Guy needed a desk with drawers on the left side. The P.I. told Bitter Guy to try taking apart a right-handed desk and switch it around, so Bitter Guy gritted his teeth and prepared to do so.

Then, in a stroke of luck, Bitter Guy found a left-handed desk! It was the right size! It was perfect! But The P.I. saw it and said no. Why? Too ugly. The brown didn’t “go” with the rest of the lab furniture.

Too ugly? It didn’t match? Was The P.I. insane? As you are now aware, our lab furniture was mainly culled from the trash. None of it matched. Granted, none of it was brown, but to say that the desk was too ugly was absurd. But when Bitter Guy told me that The P.I. was refusing to let him have the brown desk on the basis of aesthetics, I was dumbfounded. "Has he seen the lab?" I asked.

Nevertheless, the desk was deemed unworthy of our lab space, and Bitter Guy was forced to take apart and rebuild a desk. Which did not go well. Eventually, Bitter Guy ended up with a gray table and a set of rolling drawers which did not match the rest of the furniture, but was acceptable.

A few days later, The P.I. moved the ugly brown desk into the microscope room.

But the chairs came back, they wouldn’t go away

The furniture situation in our lab was absolutely ludicrous. The furniture was not what you’d expect to find in a fancy university like ours. Just about all of it was leftover furniture gleaned from the building’s cast-off junk area, which was conveniently located just outside our lab. People dropped off old furniture there and our P.I. would go steal it instead of buying new furniture. This wasn’t quite as bad as it sounds, because the desks, for the most part, were perfectly fine. But the chairs, oh the chairs.

We had, as I have noted on a few occassions, very little space. There were nevertheless two to three chairs per lab member. Weaving your way from the lab entrance to the second microscope room (and you had to weave thanks to the crush of desks and lab benches) meant pushing extra chairs out way as you went. Most of our chairs were from the cast-off pile, and, just as a warning to you, people do not throw away good chairs. People may get rid of functioning desks, but if someone throws away a chair, it’s because it squeaks or tilts or is way too tall or is missing a wheel or something.

But we did have a few new ones that The P.I. bought from Staples or somewhere. But these chairs were the worst of the bunch. He must have gotten a deal on them, and I bet Staples was glad to be rid of them. These chairs were flimsy, armless, and small. Even when the seat was adjusted to the tallest setting, an average-sized person sitting in the chair would find his legs sloping upwards toward his knees. These chairs were practically child-sized.

One night, after tripping over several teeny black chairs on my way to my lab bench, I got fed up. There were more than enough chairs in the lab for everyone, we did not need these stupid tiny black chairs. So my fellow lab mate Grouchy Guy and I gathered them up and rolled them out to the cast-off furniture pile and left them. We went home that night, very pleased with ourselves.

The next morning the chairs were back.

It seems The P.I. found them in the cast-off pile and brought them right back into the lab. Over the next several days a silent war raged between The P.I. and those among us united against the tiny black chairs: me, Bitter Guy and Grouchy Guy. Every night we’d sneak a chair or two to the cast-off pile, and every day The P.I. would find them and roll them back into the lab. I couldn’t figure out his attachment to them. We weren’t asking for him to buy us new ones, we just wanted to get rid of the extras! No one ever sat in them. They were ridiculously small.

I can’t really remember how it ended, but I think I must have talked to The P.I. and made him realize that these chairs were truly awful, and completely unnecessary. Or maybe he just got tired of recollecting the chairs every night.

As a footnote to this story, The Doktah and I once obtained a selection of rather nice cast-off chairs from the campus administrative building. We had just finished a mandatory, life-sucking training on how to use the new campus-wide ordering system, and happened to mention to the trainer our P.I.’s system for providing chairs to his grad students. The trainer’s eyes widened in shock, and he said there was a roomful of unused chairs that we could rifle through if we liked. We liked, and we ended up with some sweet chairs that weren’t even broken! They even had cushioning! Well, mine squeaked, but the only thing wrong with The Doktah’s was it’s hideous orange color. Which was a minor thing, since no one cared how anything looked in our lab.

Or so you’d think. More on that in the next post, entitled “How Bitter Guy Got So Bitter” or “The Tale of the Too-Brown Desk.”

Monday, November 01, 2004

Engineers like to chart things

When I was in college, my friends and I came up with a graph of Suck vs. Time. The units of Suck, Btu*cp/lbm*°R, are my favorite part, although they are only funny in geek language. (Those units are really hard to work with. So… they suck. Get it?) Basically, the chart looks like this:

Suck vs Time (for undergraduate ChemE) Posted by Hello

The jump in sophomore year is the Thermodynamics Correction Factor. Thermo is really really hard. It’s pretty much a weed-out course. (Aside: I came back from a Thermo homework session once complaining about how I hated doing Thermo. An acquaintance said, “Then don’t do it!” I said I had to; he couldn’t see why. There were a few minutes of puzzled exchange until I realized that he thought Thermo was a drug.) And then the classes just get exponentially harder, culminating in Unit Operations Lab, and then there’s the sweet relief of graduation.

Grad school inspired a similar chart, but this time there were two things to plot against time: Bitterness and Apathy. (I never figured out what their units should be. Maybe I didn’t care enough.) It was my third or fourth year, and I had lost most of that hopeful, first-year-grad-student anticipation. My experiments were going nowhere, and I seemed to be accomplishing nothing. I felt like I was doomed to spend the rest of my life treading water in that godforsaken lab. When I caught myself thinking about it as the “godforsaken lab,” and I realized had gotten a touch bitter.

In fact, in my fourth year, during the annual recruiting weekend – when the deparment brought prospective grad students out to try to convince them to choose our university – they asked us grad students to help out, as we did every year. But I didn’t meet any of the recruits that year, because I said that the best thing I could do for the department would be to not speak to any of them. My bitterness would only scare them away.

But, as time passed, the bitterness began to wane. Oh, things were still going nowhere; I just didn’t care. And so I developed this:

Bitterness, Apathy vs Time Posted by Hello

Since graduating, I have found that this chart is applicable to graduate students everywhere. Everyone hits a wall somewhere around year 3 where it feels like you will never finish your thesis. And then, somehow, you finish. My thesis has five chapters. The first chapter is the introduction and the last chapter is the conclusion; the middle three chapters represent the five years I spent toiling in the lab. It took me 4 years to gather the data for Chapter 2. Chapter 3 took me one month. Again, this is typical. And it makes sense; it took me four years to figure out how to do it, and then I did it twice. But you can see how that four years can seem to stretch out interminably.

I’ll leave you with one last graph. It’s another Suck vs. Time graph, this time representing the level of suckiness at discovering that all of your data is incorrect. And I know from experience.

Suck vs Time (for discovering all your dissertation data is wrong) Posted by Hello