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019: How to Avoid a Toxic Lab

The research is cutting-edge. The publications are top-tier. Funding is abundant. But this lab has a toxic secret that will make your life a living hell.

 

Hidden in Plain Sight

mold
Identifying the seventeen varieties of mold living in your walls before you try to remove it. #ItsAScienceThing

This week, we answered a question from a first-year grad student who found himself in a lab that felt more like the gladiator’s arena than an ivory tower.  The PI created an adversarial environment where it was every scientists for himself.

This summer (my first lab rotation) was in an HHMI lab and the PI was both non-existent and absolutely poisonous. Furthermore, their caustic attitude bled into the rest of the lab. It seemed like the rest of the staff withheld information so as to throw you under the bus during lab meeting. This experience has led me to reconsider my position as a grad student as well as a scientist. How do you handle a bad lab/mentor?

Thankfully, this was just a rotation, but it raises an important question about how to detect the subtle signs of disfunction.  We share one simple tip that helps you discover the hidden drama before you commit to joining.

And it’s not just advice for grad students on rotation – you’ll want to take the same advice if you’re choosing a postdoctoral lab because the stakes can be even higher!

 

Cutting on the Bias

We also took some time to answer listener mail about our recent gender bias episode.  Josh and Dan take the implicit bias test semi-live and on the air, and share their results.  If you haven’t taken it yet, go find out how biased you really are.  Jerk.

And we get the giggles about the fuggles with Ad Astra Ale from Free State Brewing in Lawrence, KS.  It was sent in by some listeners at the University of Kansas, so thank you to all of our Jayhawks friends!

018: How NOT to choose a career you’ll love

If you wake up every morning excited to go to work, you’re ‘in-the-zone’ all day, and you come home refreshed and excited to start a new day, please stop reading now.  Everyone else, join me in paragraph two.

A story for the rest of us

Oh good, they’re gone.  It’s hard enough to work at a job you dislike, but it’s much worse when the people around you seem to love what they’re doing.  As they succeed, you feel like a failure.  They seem engaged with the work, while you watch the clock until closing.

But fear not: there are steps you can take today to find a career you’ll love.  Step one is to learn from other people’s mistakes and avoid their stupid choices!

forkintheroad
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” -Yogi Berra

This week on the show, Daniel shares his story of landing in graduate school and realizing too late that it wasn’t a good fit with his work style or abilities.  Experiments weren’t working, and he began to lose hope of ever finding a career he’d love.

Quitting was an option, but there’s such a stigma in the academic world for those who “leave with a Masters.”  In the end, he finished the degree, and took the time to understand which aspects of his work life made him happy.

Along with the harrowing tale of poor life choices, we discuss the red flags that indicate you might be on the wrong path.  We also identify a few of the components of a satisfying career and why it’s important to start seeking them today.

Reaching for the top shelf

To extract Daniel’s story, Josh bribed him with a special ethanol this week.  It’s Basil Hayden’s Bourbon with one ice cube.  If you’re in grad school, you may have to take out a loan in order to buy some!

Josh also shares some fun research linking bee foraging behavior to caffeine content in the nectar.  It makes the bees head out to the dance floor, and they seem to get addicted to the sweet tasting stimulants.  It’s like Red Bull for bees!

017: Does science have a gender bias? It depends on who you ask.

National_Association_Against_Woman_Suffrage
Later that day: “Um… oh… uh… no, Dear! I swear I thought it said ‘suffering.’ Please let me back in the house.”

Shocking Fact No. 1: If you put a woman’s name and a man’s name on the exact same job application for lab manager, the woman is described as less competent and will be offered less money.

Shocking fact No. 2: If you show  the results of that experiment to faculty members in scientific fields, the men are less likely to believe the results.  They say the research is flawed and the findings are suspect.

Question: What happens if you change the results of the resume experiment?  Will those male faculty members still think the research was shoddy?  Or will they believe the new results because it fits with their pre-conceived notions about hiring?

On this week’s show, we discuss some new research that gives hints as to why gender bias in the scientific community is so pernicious.  How can you solve a problem when not everyone will admit that the problem exists in the first place?

And before you leap to judgement about those unenlightened pigs, be sure to check your OWN implicit biases with these simple tests.

Everyday Sadism

We’re also celebrating Halloween with a murderous IPA from Shipyard Brewing in Portland, Maine.  It’s the “Little Horror of Hops,” and the mascot is this handsome devil:

HorrorHops_12oz 5X

We enjoy the bitter brew, and Daniel reveals the darker side of our taste preferences.  Recent research implies that people who enjoy flavors like coffee and beer are actually more likely to express psychopathic tendencies!  That explains a lot about the Hello PhD hosts…

We hope you have a Hoppy Halloween (see what I did there?) and please tweet your #ScaryScience costumes to @hellophd.

 

016: Working Hard, or Hardly Working? How lab culture affects your productivity.

During his first week as a postdoc, James was excited.  He stayed late to set up cultures and read a stack of papers.  The second week, he was surprised to notice he was the last one in the lab at 6PM – in his undergrad lab, you could expect to see people working past 10.

Over the next few weeks, James left earlier each evening, pushing off the next experiment until tomorrow.  By the end of six months, he wasn’t making progress and had lost some of his energy and passion for the project.

Embracing the buzz

honey-bees
In this metaphor, the queen is the PI and the drones are postdocs who do all the work for low wages….

Is your lab buzzing with activity at all hours of the day and night, or does everyone clear out before dinner?   It should come as no surprise that the work ethic of people around you can affect YOUR productivity.  Ignoring the subtle nuances of lab culture is an all-too-common mistake.

This week, we respond to a listener question about culture and productivity:

Hi Josh + Dan,

I would love to hear a discussion about the work culture and differing work ethic at different tiers of institutes. I visited Boston over the weekend and was struck by the urgency all around, which I miss at my institute…wonder how much more productive I would be surrounded by a “hive” mentality. What do you think?

We start by exploring those powerful phrases about urgency and a hive mentality and how they can motivate you to work harder.  But in the end, we have some doubts about whether you’ll only find that work ethic at certain universities.  In reality, it can vary by department or lab, so it’s extra important for you to know what you’re looking for and choose based on your own personality profile.

Ninja Cowboy Cat Rides Again!

Also in this episode, we celebrate fall with the new Pumpkin Spice Agarose from Fisher Scientific.  Don’t be surprised when you find your e. Coli wearing Uggs and a Northface jacket!

On the beer front, we continue to enjoy some beers sent to us from a listener in Wisconsin.  We do double-duty with Spotted Cow Ale from New Glarus Brewing Co. (New Glarus, WI) and Fantasy Factory India Pale Ale from Karben4 Brewing (Madison, WI).

The label on the Fantasy Factory is nearly indescribable:

CRc8v5qXIAAHuAA

015: Simple Tricks for Time Management: The Pomodoro Technique

Scientists aren’t like other workers.  There’s no 9 to 5 time clock with lunch and two fifteen minute breaks.  When you’re running an experiment, you have to make a plan days in advance, juggle each step and incubation period, and stay nights and weekends to hit your time points.

That’s hard enough without the constant ping, beep, and ring of your computer and cell phone as internet distractions swirl around you.  How are you supposed to get anything done?

timer credit: mlpeixoto
In this version of the Pomodoro Technique, Darth Vader chokes you with ‘the force’ every time you check your email. It only works once.

Josh and the Giant Peach Tomato Timer

This week on the show, Josh shares a few simple tricks for maximizing your productivity and minimizing distractions.

It’s tempting to keep up with your friends on Facebook and take that call from your SO, but the research shows that as a species, we’re pretty bad at multi-tasking.  What can you do to bring focus back to your experiments so you can publish that next paper in record time?

First, you need to know where your time is going.  Josh explains how to keep a time-log to document your starting point.  Do you spend 40 minutes each morning flipping between email, Twitter, and CNN.com?  Have you been taking leisurely ninety-minute lunches in the pizza place in town?  And how much time did you spend debating with the guy two labs down about which Game of Thrones character is the most devious?

Once you know where your time is going, you’ll have a better plan to manage it.  Josh uses the Pomodoro Technique to stay focused for 25 minute sprints.  That’s less than half an hour, but by eliminating distractions, you’ll be surprised how much you can accomplish.  Tune in to this week’s episode for a full description of how to get started, and why it’s so important to use your time well.

If you want to try it out, you can get a “real-world” tomato timer, or just use an app.

I don’t know anyone in Stockholm.  You must have the wrong number.

Also in this episode, we give some love to the recent Nobel Laureates in Chemistry.  Aziz Sancar, Tomas Lindahl, and Paul Modrich won for their work on DNA repair mechanisms, and each one got an early morning call with the good news.  

We celebrate with TWO delicious beers from a listener in Madison Wisconsin.  She shipped us the threateningly labeled Ambergeddon from Ale Asylum (Madison, WI) and a fall-tastic Oktoberfest from Summit Brewing (St. Paul, MN).  The beers were excellent, and Josh realized his dream of receiving free beer from a listener.  

See kids, dreams DO come true.