Wednesday, December 29, 2004

In Other Words...

Now, in addition to inducing mass comas, group meeting could sometimes turn ugly. When The Doktah first started doing experiments with isolated xenopus oocyte nuclei, she found that the nuclei swelled up when they were in the isolation medium, but she couldn’t figure out why. So she decided to use group meeting as a forum, looking for suggestions of what could be causing the swelling.

But the crowd turned on her. Do you remember the scene in Young Frankenstein where Gene Wilder is presenting his monster to a scientific audience, and the audience throws fruit? That’s not always so far from the truth. It can happen anywhere. At a national conference, a wide-eyed grad student might be presenting her poster for the first time and find herself facing a barrage of questions. “Did you consider the effect of the ubiquitin? Did you measure the force of the spectrin repeats? Have you quantified the rate of the enzyme reaction? DO YOU KNOW EVERY TINY THING ABOUT EVERY SINGLE THING HAPPENING IN THE CELL?”

OK, maybe that last question is an exaggeration. But it can feel like that’s what they’re asking. And for some reason, everyone seemed to be attacking The Doktah that day in just that way. Halfway through her talk, people started demanding to know why she hadn’t tried these 150 experiments to find the cause of the swelling, and the entire meeting began degenerated into a general shouting match.

At one point, Bitter Guy had the floor, and tried to make an analogy to explain his theory about the swelling phenomenon. “Imagine that you had a whiffle ball filled with blue dye, and you threw it in a swimming pool.” I said I didn’t understand, and he said, “In other words, say that you had a swimming pool, and you threw a whiffle ball filled with blue dye into it.”

I looked at him. “Those are the same words!”

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

So What’s So Bad About Group Meeting?

I realize it’s been a long time since my last entry, but that’s because I’ve been busy. I’ve been writing Christmas cards, and last weekend The Husband and I went to NYC to visit Leah Lar. I’ve also had to work on a paper left over from grad school. Yes, even though I graduated a year ago, I’m still working on The Paper That Won’t Die. We’re on the second round of revisions.

So far, I have mentioned group meeting two times on this blog. The first time, I said that providing beer was the only way The P.I. could get us to attend; the second time, group meeting showed up on The Doktah’s Daily Schedule in Hell. So my loyal readers – all five of you – may be wondering what was so bad about group meeting. Well, four of you may be wondering, because one of you is The Doktah, and The Doktah already knows.

Group meeting was a weekly, um, meeting, where one lab member would present some data and we would all discuss it and make suggestions about what the presenter could do next. It was an opportunity to get ideas and direction, and a means of practicing presentation skills. So in theory, group meeting was a great idea. But in practice, attending group meeting was like being slowly beaten to death with science.

The worst group meetings were the ones where the AFM people were presenting. AFM stands for “atomic force microscope,” which is an instrument based on pretty cool science, actually. An AFM uses a tiny cantilever and a laser to measure the forces that hold proteins together. These forces are on the nano-Newton scale, which are very very small, and it is quite an amazing feat to be able to measure them.

Nevertheless, the data generated by the AFM is mind-crushingly boring. There are endless histograms and Gaussian curves that all look exactly the same, and which are compared and analyzed statistically. So group meetings by the AFM people boiled down to a long series of seemingly identical graphs followed by 30-40 minutes of arguments over statistics. Bitter Guy and Smelly Lunch Guy would really get into the statistics. Meanwhile, The Doktah and I would pray for death.

I don’t mean to be too hard on the AFM people. I’m sure they hated the cell biology people’s presentations just as much as we hated theirs. The point is that that group meeting was awful for everyone. Perhaps the most memorable group meeting was Really Shy Guy’s first presentation. Really Shy Guy got much better at presenting over the three years that I knew him, but when he first started he needed work. His voice was even quieter than 7-UP’s, and he was terribly nervous about presenting. On top of this, for some reason group meeting that week was held in an old classroom with sub-par multimedia equipment. So we were trapped in a dark musty room with a presenter we couldn’t hear who was talking about slides we couldn’t see. Time ceased to pass.

At one point, somebody knocked over a beer. Or maybe someone fell asleep and dropped it. Either way, about seven of us simultaneously leapt from our seats and said, “I’ll get paper towels!” desperate for an excuse to leave the room. Jersey Girl and I both ended up in the same women’s room, and we took time to make sure we got plenty of paper towels. We dawdled a bit, washed our hands, chatted. But when we got back to the classroom, Really Shy Guy was still on the same slide!

So clearly, group meeting belongs on the daily schedule in hell. But there’s no beer at that one.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

The Doktah's Daily Schedule

At some point in her grad school career, I think after about two year’s worth of data gathering and analysis, The Doktah discovered that she had been analyzing the data incorrectly. She was calculating the area expansion modulus of xenopus oocyte nuclei, and you know how that can go. Apparently, she had been assuming constant volume and she shouldn’t have been. The moron.

But the thing is, she had shown her data to The P.I. on many many occasions without any comments, but when Grouchy Guy asked about it at a group meeting, The P.I. said, “Oh, yeah, you can’t assume constant volume!” as though it were a given. So The Doktah was faced with the reanalysis of two years of data. Good times.

On top of this, The Doktah was also in the process of submitting a paper to a journal, and she was having issues with the figures. She had finished making the figures, but couldn’t format them. They just wouldn’t format. They came out blurry or pixelated or the Greek symbols wouldn’t show up. At one point she was trying to resize an array of six square images. She selected all six of them, but as she dragged the mouse to scale them down, only one got smaller. If she selected them individually, they wouldn't change size at all.

So The Doktah came up with her Daily Schedule in Hell:

7:00-8:00: Data analysis
8:00-9:00: Figures
9:00-10:00: Reanalyze data
10:00-12:00: Carrot Top movie
12:00-1:00: Group meeting
1:00-2:00: Redo figures
2:00-3:00: Reanalyze data
3:00-4:00: Group meeting
4:00-6:00: Rescreening of the Carrot Top Movie
6:00-7:00: Redo figures
7:00-8:00: Reanalyze data
8:00-9:00: Redo figures
9:00-11:00: E! True Hollywood Story: Carrot Top
11:00-12:00: Redo figures
12:00-1:00: Group meeting
1:00-2:00: Redo figures
2:00-3:00: Reanalyze data
3:00-5:00: Behind the scenes of the Carrot Top Movie
5:00-6:00: Figures
6:00-7:00: Group meeting

It's nice to see... anything

I wear glasses. And if it weren’t for the miracle of plastic, they’d be pretty thick glasses. The Doktah, however, didn’t wear glasses. She had 20/20 vision; I had 20/400. Needless to say, I was jealous. Naturally, she bragged and bragged about her perfect vision all the time.

Then she started getting headaches whenever she sat at her computer, and then the headaches started getting worse. After a week or two of blinding headaches, she decided to go to the eye doctor, and she came back with a prescription for glasses to wear while at the computer.

“Ah-ha!” I said. “How’s your perfect vision now?”

“Oh, I still have perfect vision,” she replied. “I just have to wear glasses when I use the computer, or I get a blinding headache.” The thing is, she was quite serious. She truly thought that she still had perfect vision, blinding headaches notwithstanding.

It took The Doktah awhile to get used to the idea of having to wear glasses. She did have perfect vision, after all. So for the first few weeks of the new glasses, she would forget to wear them, use the computer, and develop a blinding headache. “Man!” she would think to herself. “What is the matter with my head?” And then she would remember, and she would put on her glasses.

Eventually we worked up a flow chart for her to follow for when she had a blinding headache. Because, as I believe I have mentioned, engineers like to chart things.

The headache flowchart Posted by Hello