Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Mistress of the Lab Becomes Grumpy

In fact, today I am EXCEEDINGLY grumpy. Let me share.

The undergrads have returned to lab. They are inexperienced, loud, and in my way. They do not recognize their limits, and do not ask the right questions ('You do know that tube will implode if you run it more than half full?'; 'That's acrylamide. Put on gloves and go to the hood. NOW.'; 'AAAAH! No! Close the autoclave ALL THE WAY!').

3. The advisor persists in lauding the undergrads, who are all brilliant! Because they go to school here because Mommy and Daddy are rich! Because they memorize things! Even though they couldn't extrapolate to save their lives! We grad students, however, are total idiots, because we did not attend Snooty schools.

Mostly I am out of temper because I feel super extra lame: nothing I do works.

The undergrads irritate me because they have no humility, proportion, or work ethic, largely. They are continually told that they are the Smartest Bestest Ever. Particularly in lab, I think this impedes them learning useful things.

Humility is an important (and often absent) element of science research. If we already knew everything, we wouldn't be researching, would we now? Now that science, and especially biology, divides into specialized fiefdoms, there is usually no other Expert On X in the vicinity. This can breed certain unsavory attitudes of superiority, which are exacerbated by Snooty U-ness. My colleagues in particular tend to forget that the next person over knows just as much as them-- about something else.

And then, to make it better, my colleagues are like pirhanas. It's the 'stags in mating season' styles of scientific interaction; if you admit ignorance or error, they attack, and even if you don't, they play dominance games.

I detest this attitude. There's a big difference between not knowing something, not realizing you don't know it, and being unwilling to admit it. The latter two categories, I find, respectively, irritating and soulless. I try to maintain an attitude of proper humility: knowing I'm ignorant, I'm willing to learn, but not to be attacked. I've met a lot of scientists who think they already know everything, and are unwilling to learn. This is pride perpetuating ignorance and willful blindness. It can lead to very bad science: looking for the result you wish you'd gotten, or trying to prove your hypothesis, or throwing out data because it's not what you wanted, or just not thinking hard enough to do the proper controls.

This is why I loathe both my lab, and the undergrads. Oh, please, somebody let me out.