Search Results for "GI Jane"

Aug 22 2016

Managing Techs: Part 1, a case study

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DJMH said in a comment to the last post:

I would like to know why you thought it was appropriate to involve the tech in this. You're the manager, and you put the tech in the uncomfortable situation of possibly ratting out a co-worker.

This decision, and in fact, management of techs, is very much a function of who the tech is.

In the last post I didn't include some background, etc, (like that post needed more length, anyway). So, here's some relevant information that when into my managing techs, in general, and this one in particular. I am, as readers know, old for these parts (being the internet). I'm doing my best to uphold Boomer Honor, which according to some is oxymoronic. Or just plain moronic. I've been a prof for about 30 years, and been pretty steadily NIH funded since the beginning. I've had 7 techs in that period of time, but some years with no tech at all. And they are all very different people, with different goals and different skill sets.

Also relevant is that I run a small lab. During the year, it's me, a postdoc, a tech. Now I've got a (yes, a, as in one) grad student, who is an MD/PhD, which is about the only kind of PhD student I'm willing to take at this point. In the summer I get another 2-4 summer types, and we really ramp up the experiments.

But irrespective of size I try to run a lab that in today's lingo is "flat". I try and reduce the hierarchy and the effects of hierarchy, as appropriate for people's goals and skills. This is much easier in a small lab. I involve the tech and postdoc in everything that is of even remote interest to them. Of course there are things, such as each other's salary, that they don't have to know. But we meet as a group and talk about what people are doing, and everyone gets some say in what they do. Yes, there are things, such as the nitty gritty of extracting data from electrophysiology recordings, that no one wants to do.

So why did I involve the tech in the problem of Jane? Firstly, it was Tech who brought the problem to me. She is the one who signs off on the time cards, something she & I discussed and agreed upon. Secondly, if Tech had said: I don't want to do this, it would have totally, and appropriately, fallen to me. But this particular person, Tech, is functions very much as a "lab manager", and is incredibly good with people.  She had set up the complex schedules for our summer experiments (which involve extensive human  labor, often working in pairs), and really knew the summer students. She was outraged that someone would take advantage of the lab in this way. She was outraged that someone would behave unethically.

In this situation, in this case, it did not occur to me NOT to include the tech in the problem. Even if I had discovered the problem, and I decided that I needed to be the one to handle it, I would have presented it to both the PD & Tech and gotten their opinions on what was happening, and what should be done about it.

Yet, I would have done this with all the techs I have had over the course of my career. There were some who were professionally younger, as opposed to chronological age. There were some who were computer/electronic wizards, but not so great in managing people. But by having this  tech talk to the student first, it was one way to defuse the situation (if it was an honest mistake), and keep the inquiry casual.

If I had endless & bottomless money (hahaha) I would hire people of many different skills, and have lots of people with lots of different abilities. I'd have a programmer and a people manager and a data processor and an animal wrangler. But despite what some people think, even aging blue-haired profs don't have endless money, and hire the best they can and work with what they have.

So in hiring a tech, one needs to ask oneself, what is the most important thing  I  need in my lab, right now, to get the data, papers, results, I need for this stage of my career? Early career people have different needs then recently tenured, etc. Talking about how to hire and how to manage is another post. Stay tuned.




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May 21 2015

Musings on Alzheimer's Disease

Part of what is hard about Alzheimer's is the feeling that it is changing who one is. There was a long article this past Sunday in the NYTimes magazine about Sandy Bem, a psychologist with AD who decided to kill herself. She knew what was going on and had made the decision when she was cognitively intact. The story is powerful, in part because Bem was a powerful person, in part because of the story and in part because of the excellent writing of Robin Marantz Henig.  The story included swathes of her (relevant) life, including this passage which resonated with me:

As a parent in the 1970s, Sandy turned every interaction with her children into a political act. During story time, she would go through their picture books with a bottle of Wite-­Out and a Magic Marker, changing a hero’s name from male to female, revising plot lines, adding long hair or breasts to some of the drawings.

The story is not just about a woman making a hard decision. It is about this woman in the life she lived making a hard decision. Sandy Bem was a professor, and became a clinician late in life. She was a psychologist and knew about cognition and its changes over the lifespan. At times it seems the decision was easy, and then Henig gives us the consequences to family as Bem's disease progresses. One of the quotes from the article that  I found compelling concerned her ex-husband, who became one of her strongest sources of support as she got worse:

“If some devil had asked whether I would be willing to buy Daryl’s deeper self at the cost of my developing dementia,” she wrote, “I would say NO without hesitation. But if it comes free with my unstoppable decline into hell, I’m thankful for the gift.”

This quote is really about Bem, and her acceptance of the changes the disease brought to her. Nobody wants AD, but she was willing to look it in the face and make decisions about what happens next and how to navigate her changed life. Sandy Bem lived a powerful life, making hard choices <cue up quote about making hard choices from Anne Bancroft  in G.I. Jane. As my friend Maye says: there is a quote for every life situation from GI Jane>. The article, to me, was about living (and ending) life on your own terms, by your own choice. That is such a hard thing to do. It is so easy to find blame, but I found not a drop of self-pity in Bem. <cue up 2nd GI Jane quote about self-pity>.

Sandy Bem falls between me and my mother in age. My mother is end stage Alzheimer's and is well beyond the place where Sandy Bem decided to end her life. My mother never could have made the decision that Bem did. She was in absolute denial about things going wrong. My mother was smart and articulate and spent years pretending nothing was wrong. She never would or could have chosen to commit suicide. When intact she would have kept hoping for a cure until it was too late to make the choice that Bem did. And even now, with very little cognitive ability left and her dignity rapidly vanishing, I am not sure that my mother-then would want my mother-now to chose death.

Part of what is hard about Alzheimer's is the feeling that it is changing who one is. I write "my mother-then" with unease. One of my sibs has totally abandoned my mother. He has not seen her in years, does not communicate with me to find out how she is, what she needs, what she was like this week. To him, his mother is dead and gone and there is someone else in her place.

I try to think of this as a continuum. Just as any of us is not the person we were when were 2 let alone 12, my mother is not the person she was at 70 or even 80 when she could have made the choices that Sandy Bem did. There is still a person inside the husk that bears my mother's name. But I am uneasy. I do not know how you judge what this person in front of me wants. I am the one who is making the hard decisions, not the person who the decisions impact. I will try to chose, and to feel no self-pity as I watch my mother disintegrate.


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Apr 27 2015

Potty as she rewrites her grant

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There is a quote from GI Jane for every situation.

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Aug 19 2016

Hard Things a PI Must Do

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I had to terminate a student working in my lab. The work this student, call her Jane, did was good. When she worked, she worked hard. She was committed to the project, and thought about it carefully. She made contributions. Why did I let her go? She lied on her time card. My problem? At this point, it is not whether I was right to let her go, but when is there enough information about the problem to let someone go. The problem was how long it took me to do this.

My super-tech found problems with Jane's hours and time card about several weeks ago. Tech spoke with Jane and explained the problem. Jane swore it was an honest mistake, and it wouldn't happen again. Tech started keeping informal track of hours Jane was in the lab, and found more discrepancies between time card and hours. Our building has a ID swipe-in system, and we  got security to give us the exact time she swiped into the building. Lots more differences between swipes and self-reported time card. Tech and had long walks discussing the problem. Tech and I had many cups of coffee debating what to do. One of the smartest things I did was involve Tech, because she thinks clearly about this kind of issue (not to mention thinks clearly about data and experiments and implications and the lab in general). So on a Thursday about two weeks after first discussion, Tech and I sat down with Jane to discuss issues with Jane's time card. Jane again said "honest mistake". I explained carefully and in some detail that if she was in the lab, with medical supplies, life animals, and critical data, I needed to know that she was absolutely honest about everything. I explained that I needed to trust her on all accounts, and that lying about the little things (like hours worked) made it difficult to trust for the big ones. I next said "what do you think we should do next?", we being me, Jane, Tech. Jane looked at me like "huh?". I prompted again, "what happens now about the hours you didn't work?".  Jane said, with this nudging on my part, that she would take the hours in question off of her time card, and she did that afternoon.

I was uneasy. How many chances? How likely is this to be honest error, as opposed to someone gaming the system? What is the value of her work, does an extra 30 min a day matter? Or is honesty about this a binary thing, either you're pregnant or not?

On Friday, after the Thursday talk, Jane said she was going to work on the weekend to make up the hours she had to lose for the hours she had to take off her card. There was certainly enough work to make this valuable. Besides, as Tech pointed out, this gives her a chance to either do it right or do it wrong.

On Monday morning, we saw Jane claimed about 6 hours on Sat and again on Sun. Tech was suspicious because it didn't seem like there was that much work done. So we got the swipe/ time of entry records. Jane had come in 45-75 minutes later than she put on the time card. This baffled me and Tech. We had shown her on Thursday that we were cross-checking her time card with swipe data. Why on earth would someone do this? So Tech suggested, and then insisted that we look at the security videos that our police keep of cars coming & going from the parking lot. I hesitated (more work for more people), but Tech said "more data will be more convincing". This is possible at our small university, and in fact, security didn't mind doing this. The records showed that Jane had been at work for about 1.5 hours each day.

This made it easy on Tuesday to call Jane in and say "pack up your stuff, we are terminating your employment. Right now". In retrospect, we could have terminated her after the first instance and saved ourselves lots of time by. But, I didn't know at that point. Maybe it was an honest mistake. That's the hard part in this. As @BatesPhysio sez: managing people is often the hardest part of being a PI. By the end it was clear that Jane was cheating. Period. I really wanted to ask her: what the heck were you thinking? I didn't. I just said "go".

What astounded me was her response. No apology, no explanation, no reasoning.  All she said was "did you think my work was ok, and would you still write me a letter of recommendation that says so?". No remorse. No acknowledgement of wrongdoing. I got a subsequent email that said (and I am quoting here):

I forgot to ask you upon termination if we could discuss the standings of any future employment references regarding the quality of work I did while I worked for you. If you are willing to be a reference for me in the future, I would request that we mutually decide what information could be shared with any potential employers.

Mutually decide? I wrote back:

Jane, I am willing to be a reference, if you wish. But the contents of a letter of reference are not something that is negotiated in advance. I would and will answer all questions about you honestly. Potnia

I have not heard further from her.



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Aug 17 2016

Mistakes I've Made as a PI: Mentoring Trainees

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The current mistake was in how I hired students. It's relevant to current Postdoc Salary issues, to which I'll return at the end of this post.

In the summer, we (my department, other labs in the med school here) take summer students into our labs. Some of these are med students, some other clinical professional students or college students, and there's even the occasional high school student. These folks can be paid in a couple of ways, but the two big ones are on a fellowship (an amount regulated by the university that isn't very good, but its better than volunteering, something to which I object) or as an hourly employee. NIH grants will not pay student fellowships. People paid as part time on an NIH grant need to be an employee, and make at least minimum wage. Fellowships, by the way, work out to less than minimum wage in my lab, where the students are seriously involved in the work.

I make all of this very clear, including different categories (and when possible offer students the choice), before students start. I tell them, no I discuss with them, what working in my lab entails: the hours are long, some of the work is less tedious (data collection), some of it exciting. I tell them the upsides: fellowship students can go to a national meeting, at my expense, if they get an abstract accepted (and all who have submitted one have been accepted), their name goes on the papers to which they contribute. Finally, I give them names of former summer students and tell them to go talk to them. I trust the former people to give accurate information, good and bad.

This summer, I had two students on fellowships. The third person, Jane, was hourly, and on my grant. All students worked long and hard hours, as is the case with large animal work. The first two were wonderful, did well, and will get their names on at least one paper. They are back to their student lives this week, and I will miss them.

These two were acutely aware that Jane was making more than they were. Jane turned into a disaster (which is another glorious post all on its own).  The disaster was not because Jane was in a different employment category. The disaster was Jane not being honest. But even if Jane had not been a disaster, the two categories was the basis of my mistake. Having two categories made for bad feelings, and a number of less than totally smooth incidents in the lab.

It may be possible to have two categories. After all we have postdocs and grad students and technicians of various levels and skills. My mistake was not differentiating between them more cleanly. And having not distinguished between these two categories might have contributed to the disaster, but it also could have happened anyway. I won't know. Life is not a ceteris paribus experiment.

It seems obvious now. People doing the same job, with roughly the same experience, should not be paid significantly different amounts of money. I should have distinguished between the jobs this summer, and there were lots of ways to do that. For example, fellowship people work fewer hours. Fellowship people do more reading, more development of ideas, more presentations in journal club. Fellowship people get  "a project". Hourly people wash bottles, and take on more grunt work. But making this distinction is not necessarily easy, and it's obvious only in hindsight. If one gives fellowship people a "good experience" one can end up spending more time designing, implementing and assessing the experience, and not getting the science done.

Why is this relevant to postdoc salary issues? Well, my med school, wrestling with the postdoc hours/salary problem has decided, will likely decide, to have two categories of post-degree research employment, names to be determined. In one, with salaries below the $47K threshold, there will be set hours and, allegedly, set tasks. Overtime will be limited to what the PI (who is carrying the salary) can afford, but in general discouraged. These people may have to clock in and out to demonstrate hours worked. The other category, over the threshold, will be able to (what a verb) work unlimited hours. There are going to be two categories of job, two categories of postdoc, and ultimately two distinct duties/assignments. Leadership believes that distinguishing between these categories will be possible and produce only minor problems.

I know that there are currently different levels of pay for postdocs. Some differences are due to age and seniority, some due to cheapness of PI, some due to passport-of-postdoc-origin. I am not defending nor condemning those. But the proposed scheme will be different in that two postdocs, maybe even in the same lab, of roughly same experience may end up with distinctly different jobs at distinctly different pay. Leadership often does not perceive the problems that PIs wrestle with in the trenches between benches.

However! Fear Not! There are ways to cope in advance, things that are worthwhile in general being a mentor.  Lay out specific project and duties. One of the best is to develop an IDP for each person (which probably is important to do anyway). Here's one from FASEB. Here's some NIH info on IDP and postdoc success. And the SCIENCE careers page which has lots of stuff on IDPs, including tools for the postdoc to use.

I'm not sure this would work for summer students who are here for 10-12 weeks in different categories. I suspect in the future, I'll solve this problem by having one or the other employment, and avoid the problem. Which, of course, will just free me up to have other problems.


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Jul 10 2015

Buda and Pest

I found Buda and Pest to be charming. People compared them to Paris, and I see the similarities, but both Hungarian cities are much cleaner and the people seemed kinder. But, as tourists, on a tour, etc, there wasn't a lot of interaction with natives, others than those in the tourist business who are paid to be charming.

The architecture is variable and less early oppressive social realism than in Warsaw. Less bombing, less open areas in need of reconstruction, except on the fringes of the city. There was both classical gothic as well as more ornate later curlique, wedding cake excesses and quite a bit of clean art deco. This variation is in buildings, decoration on buildings and the iron rails that adorn everything. If one has to have iron bars on the windows, the variation and craftsmanship is impressive. I didn't get a lot of pictures of buildings, but Elizabeth did, so I'll have them eventually when I get her terabytes of information.

The public baths here was superb. It was not a tourist place, and I went with another woman on the trip, Janet, and we went very early (7:30). I wish there was something like this within driving distance of where I live... I would certainly join and go once a week. The building was an old 19th century, purpose built with hotel for, one assumes, the wealthy. The ceramic tiles, vaulted, skylight ceilings and general blue and cream color scheme was restful beyond lollygagging around in several temperatures of water. We spent 2.5 hours there but I easily could have spent the whole day with a book.

The only museum we did here was called House of Terror. But it could have been called "Museum of Hungarian History from 1940 through 2000'. Somebody referred to it as strident, and that is precise. There were about 3-4 rooms on the Nazis, and mostly about the Hungarian collaborators. The fact that the while they were essentially horrible people, much was made of the fact they too were killed by  Germans. This was followed by many many rooms on the immediate post-1945 history, and how the collaborators who survived just changed their uniforms from Arrowcross to Communist. The truth that there are evil human beings who delight in power over others is a point that has been forcefully over and over in the week of travel we have had.

But the majority of the museum, the stridency of the house is saved for the communists, soviet and otherwise.

[we are passing by the huge depressing soviet /socialist architecture blocks, like Cabrini Green or the miserable towers that were built in US cities. They are being rennovated, but marvelously painted in various color schemes. Some are rainbows, some are, for example, shades of green. Many people live in these blocks, of course many do. They are fucking enormous. No one seems to like them, but they are functional housing units]

There were films of people confronting their jailers, their oppressors, made in what seems to be immediately post-liberation (as they term it). Many of the perpetrators deny anything and everything. One justified, on film, lying because "the other person lied first, so why can't I?"

[just drove by roman remains - some serious archeological  sites. They actually seem preserved, and not destroyed, which seems to be much of the fate of this part of the world]

One woman seems demented and smiles like an idiot while other women accuse her of horrible things. This opens other problems. One of the women on the trip is the child of two holocaust survivors. Her father was a dentist, who befriended someone in one of the minor work camps. When the liquidation order came, the friend just opened the gate and told them to leave. They lived in the forests of Poland, outside Krakow  for two years, until Russian liberators came. Anyway, she showed me a recent article about how a Nazi guard, with well documented torture and deaths on his hands was acquitted  because of dementia. I don't know. I just don't know.

There was much made of the heroic Catholic Church who resisted terror and oppression at every turn, especially in the 1950s Hungarian uprising. My memories of history I learned are of a different church, that turned Jews over to the Nazis. Yet, Budapest's Jewish ghetto was the only one not liquidated, and many Jews did survive WWII, although many here is a relative concept. 400,000 did go to Auschwitz and Birkeneau.

The House of Terror is clearly cathartic for some set of Hungarians. It is relatively new, but much thought went into its construction. I am sure that the generation that grew up under the Soviet regime, that watched family and friends murdered after the uprising, cared passionately that their story not be forgotten That generation is passing from the earth, as are the survivors of the much of mid-20th century atrocity. The young people here are now so thoroughly post-socialist that it has become distant history to them.

We also visited the main synagogue, which is near downtown Pest. It is the second largest in the world (after the Manhattan monstrosity). But it is ornate and looks more like a Catholic cathedral than anything else, which, in fact, was the point when it was built. It has more gold leaf than many other things, the list of which I have forgotten. It is active ,and there is a community of Jews, numbering in the 1000s, and services every Saturday.

What was best about the synagogue, was the courtyard/garden. Raul Wallenberg's grave/tomb is there, weighed down by thousands and thousands of pebbles. Lists of over 100 names of Righteous People are on monuments surrounding his grave (not sure if his body is actually there - I seem to remember that the Soviets murdered him an he was never found). There is a beautiful silver tree sculpture, that is suggestive of an upside down menorah, with the leaves inscribed with the names of Hungarian Jews murdered in the Holocaust.


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Feb 18 2015

Things that Frost My Shorts - Interacting with physicians from the patient (or impatient) end of things

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I had to go to the doctor. The LadyBits doctor. I don't want even to start on how tough it is to get an appointment to see the ladybits doctor. I have to say that I'm not overly keen on seeing physicians in the best of times, and really there are no best of times for seeing physicians. I tried to avoid this by seeing my Regular Doctor, who is a nice person, my age, and with whom I have An Understanding. She calls me Potnia and I call her Jane. She talks to me like an adult and gives me pubmed references for things that I question. She tells me when I'm being foolish but when I disagree with her, and when I'm not foolish, we talk about it. In my mind, this is how all the interactions should go.

But Jane told me that I needed to see the ladybits doctor. And she got me into see an unfortunately young (but fixable with time) ladybits doctor. I did not have to wait two months to see this person, but even in two months, she would not have been old enough to talk to me like I was a human being.

Ladybits doctor started talking to me in baby-words. First I responded using the real names for things. That had no impact. So next I said that I was a professor in a medical school and I really did know the anatomy, physiology and endocrinology behind what she was saying, and that we could use the grown-up words. This did not change how she spoke to me. Ladybits doctor then started giving me advice as if I was an 18 yo virgin who wanted to know if you could get pregnant from kissing. This was not going to solve my problem. I tried to explain that I knew about Stuff, including that you didn't get pregnant from kissing, especially when you are post-menopausal. But she interrupted me at least 3-4 times as I was trying to explain various somethings. I will admit that I am sensitive to this, as the department chair from hell felt that interruption was one of his most important management techniques for uppity women.

In my youth (and youth is almost always distant these days, it seems), I would have said something. I would have tried to be polite while saying something, and maybe succeeded. Older, a bit wiser, and mostly concerned with getting some help, I didn't. I didn't exactly get the help I need, but I have more information than when I started.

The thought that I left with made me very sad. I am tough and can outlast ladybit doctors to get what I need. I know enough of the system not to think that ladybit doctors sit at any hand or foot of any diety. But what about the women (and men) who don't know? People talk about the high cost of poverty, and being able to know enough to get the help you need is just one more, very depressing, part of that. I will do my part in teaching embryonic physicians. I just wish that this ladybits doctor, and all the others, could just see themselves for a minute. Just one minute.

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