Interviews

8 AM

What a great start … Without a word he hands me the document from his lawyer. Even I recognize the high-powered firm. Our lawyer said this would happen – he would not go down without a fight. Still, it’s a bit of a shock. Especially because I’m doing what our lawyer specifically said not to do, thinking way ahead, to the months, possibly years, of negotiations. One step at a time, she preached. Right.

But, to be honest, after the first meeting it’s a huge relief to just deal with a scientist who is merely applying for glory and sainthood

The annoying euroscientist on the third floor who likes to diagnose everyone on sight says this guy is borderline autistic. Or is he just one of those entitled geniuses in their own mind, hired because of a bad recommendation, and who has produced nothing of relevance yet, but thinks it’s everyone else’s fault? That’s where my money’s at. 

Not that it matters. This whole deal hinges on those three former postdocs testifying. The two Russians went home, and never responded to follow-up requests. I talked to the cleaning lady and the girl in HR (the dude has range…) and they’re not coming forward. Actually they are recanting their initial testimonies. I feel the urge to berate them, but then remember the Seminar we all had to attend in the wake of this mess. As part of the historically oppressive gender and ethnicity I can’t begin to understand what they are still going through.

OK, but he’s also part of that very same gender and ethnicity, and actually did some honest-to-god oppressing! (Allegedly, whispers the soft lawyer voice in my head) Of course, in his mind he didn’t, everything was consensual, blah, blah. Once, twice, maybe, the lab is like any other place for bad personal relationship decisions. But not these many (allegedly). 

I should have tried to get rid of him via (lack of) productivity, but that ship has sailed. I read the very predictably menacing letter, go to my happy place, and listen to him rant about how misunderstood he is (and how incompetent everyone else is, me included) for the rest of the hour. Hopefully the postdocs will come through, but I already have a severance offer on my bottom drawer, ready to go. 

And this is what doing science has come to.

9 AM

Photo albums and slideshows are dead, long live small hand-held devices that unfortunately hold many more photos. Worse, you can never predict when it will all end. 

She starts with pictures of her invited lectures at NIH, then moves to her work on nutritional education in several African countries, then to her workshops in Indonesia, then to her hospital collaborations on bariatric surgeries, back to invited lectures in the UK, Denmark, god knows where else. Selfies with famous (non-science) people wedged in for good luck. Then it’s time to list the progress on all the different projects she has going on, all the grants she has submitted. She seems offended when I don’t remember them in detail. Get the funding and I’ll be sure to do all the remembering she wants…

But, to be honest, after the first meeting it’s a huge relief to just deal with a scientist who is merely applying for glory and sainthood, for whom somewhere down the road there is a film based on her life starring Gwyneth Paltrow in the leading role. And who just wants a pat on the back from her Director. Even after all that Seminar advice I think I can do that.

10 AM

I want to remind this dude that he is another member of the historically oppressive gender and ethnicity, but he knows it. The fact that the oppression scheme is flipped is not lost on him. He alleges it’s all about power, and of course he’s right. What else he’s right about, however, I can’t say.

He’s a junior scientist who has yet to get enough funding to form his own lab, so his career is in a sort of limbo. Working in a big lab, he managed to get this small grant. But who has final say on the work, himself or the lab head who is listed as a Co-Principal Investigator? Who goes last on the papers, who gets the most credit? He says he wrote it, and all the original ideas are his. But even he can’t deny that it would never have been approved with only his CV to back it up. Worse, the project focuses on animal models and gene editing tools that were there before he came on board.

He seems to understand all this, until suddenly he doesn’t, and goes on a bitter tangent. Oppression and Unaccountable Bosses, the Important People Club that protects the Important People, the lack of jobs for true talent, the slaveholder mentality of Bosses (not sure he is “allowed” to use that one…). That’s the general idea, and of course he is right in principle. I know he knows I know this; I’m just not sure he’s as right as he thinks he is. I’m not in their lab every day, I was not in the meetings where this grant (that I now wish had not been funded) was discussed. Again it’s a “he said, she said” sort of thing, and why do I only get those today? 

I tell him the obvious suggestion I will make to his Boss (no apologies, that’s who she is). Share credit on the work, be co-corresponding authors. For some reason he’s offended by this, but did he really think I’d just take his side? In the name of what, gender solidarity? No use arguing though. I’ll let him hit the coffee room to discuss with his mates how the Important People Club protected the Important People, yet again. He’ll get his fill of validation. 

I wonder what he’ll be like as a Boss, if he ever gets to be one… Will keep an eye on that.

11 AM

This was actually not her time slot, but I’ll put her here regardless. I don’t think it matters, and it makes more sense. 

Of course she believes the junior scientist to be a buffoon, only good at selling other peoples’ research and ideas. A used car salesman she employs out of pity (or because he is related to someone – couldn’t really follow, she talks too fast, faster than me!). This is her main point, but she only gets to it after half an hour of singing the praises of her lab and all the grants and prestige it has brought to an Institute that fails to adequately reward it with more (hint, hint). More space, more access to core facilities, more PhD students. Just more of anything that might be around, except the problems she knows are hovering (who doesn’t?). She then pays me the wonderful compliment of declaring that I’m the right person for these difficult times because I’m just not that great of a scientist, and if someone is to be burned due to this nasty business, it might as well be me. But she says this in the nicest possible way!

Anyway, she has a wonderful take on my suggestion. She agrees to discuss the possibility of shared credit on the work. If she deems the work good enough to be accepted in a great journal, that is. If the work turns out to be below par Junior can have it, she won’t soil her name… What generosity! 

12 noon

The junior scientist would really like to be this guy. A brand new Principal Investigator, who has already published better than most here.

We talk about science and where his field is going, where the Institute needs to be to adequately back up people like him so they can do their best possible work, move forward. What expertise we must jump on, possible high-quality recruits we may lure here, how to reorganize things. I try to put on my best career mentoring cap, and tell him what I think he should be doing.

Of course he also had predictable requests, they all do. More, more, more. But I’ll pretend he didn’t. Actually, as I unpack my sandwich I can’t even remember exactly what he asked for.

1 PM

Oh, great… Is it too late to open the door, just in case? Probably. She didn’t come straight from the lab, did she? More of a risqué outfit for a gala; and the makeup is flawless. At this hour, in this place, in this weather, that is a feat in itself.

Wait, can I even think this? Well, I can think anything I want, but the Seminar was clear: we truly start to win these battles when we don’t even think in sexual terms, and keep everything professional. Right, but everyone has to do that… Not come to the Directors office siting like Sharon Stone and acting like a wannabe porn star. Maybe I shouldn’t write this down? But I already thought it. Oh, shut up and just figure out want she wants…

Covering the costs of publications. All the other talk is basically camouflage. She has been doing OK with her projects, but ran out of money to pay for this. No, actually not accurate, she just doesn’t want to waste money if she can get some sort of softhearted codger to put up the dough. Because the Institute’s name is on them, press release possibilities, media attention, prestige, blah, blah. Another one who thinks she’s the only competent researcher in the world. I won’t even bother going into my usual rant of what I think of publishing companies and the racket they have going on. I know I can think this, but at this stage of her career she can’t afford to. I’ll just give her the usual spiel: if I did it for one I’d have to do it for everyone, Sharon Stone lookalikes or otherwise. 

She does notlook pleased. But still hot, ever hotter when angry. 

Don’t write that down, you idiot!

3 PM

I was prepared for a sob story, but I guess you can never prepare enough. His desperation is palpable, it floats ahead as he comes in the room, immediately setting the tone. If we were in a (bad) B-movie the lights would go out, a howling gust of wind would chill the building, an unknown animal would cry out in menace or pain. 

I understand, I really do. He’s been here for years, but his career never took off as expected when he was recruited. He has published a lot (and reminds me of this constantly) but the lack of really good papers and grants (following everyone else’s trends will only take you so far…) means tenure is not any closer than it was. And there is no way to increase his salary with other monies, there aren’t any. 

Plus his kid has ADHD (or something), and his wife is pregnant (congratulations? not quite sure), and there is the mortgage, and his dog died, and everyone is in therapy, and… It’s not fair, and I know it, but I start hearing a (bad) country-western song in my head. I want to tell him my problems, but I know he’ll be offended.

He wants to give up this particular rat race, try another one. Go into management, be a technician in one of the core facilities, a lab manager; have some sort of 9 to 5 tranquility.

Actually, having read through all his latest career plans, that’s probably the best idea he’s had in years.

4 PM

“Match my offer, or else!” That’s basically the whole conversation she had planned. Always sharp, ruthless, to the point. That’s why she received this great offer from abroad. Her CV is outstanding, she is a commanding presence on social media. Good for her, and I really mean that. I measure the success of our Institute not only by who we manage to recruit, but how we help people move on, because they eventually become too good for us, so to speak. Does that make sense? I think it does, and I’m the Director, so…

She’s willing to stay, but only if I guarantee a (not small) promotion to match what she’ll be getting elsewhere. Do I want to do that? I don’t know. Can I recruit someone as promising to take up her lab space? Has she published all the great papers she had in her? And is all this a bluff? I’m familiar with the place she’s considering; it’s a great offer to move to what is, in fact, a shiny scientific desert. It will take her years to set up a competitive lab, if she ever manages. But is that her priority?

Sometimes this job is hard.

5 PM

So he doesn’t want do to anything that is not specifically in his contract. His research, sure, of course, no doubt. But none of that crap of participating in teaching or in services and core facilities. It’s his equipment and expertise, other lazy bastards should get their own, just like he did. And those that don’t do, teach, of course. He doesn’t have time for imbeciles, and must spend every ounce of effort in building up his CV so he can move away from this joint. That is a noble endeavor that I fully support (no irony). And I tell him so. Not sure he believes it.

He’s also lawyered up, but even I can see his counsel is not close to top notch, most scientists can’t afford that. I tear through each argument without breaking a sweat, showing that, in fact, it is all in the contract. First of all, “his” equipment is actually mine (so to speak, it belongs to the Institute). I can change the locks, and that would be that. Secondly, “his” expertise was acquired here, and the contract is pretty clear on Intellectual Property, good luck with your challenge. Teaching, OK, I’ll give you that one. But rules say you can only take on MSc and PhD students if you are part of the syllabus… Does he really want to lose that major source of very cheap and eager workforce?

Didn’t think so.

6 PM

OK, maybe it’s getting late and I stepped into an alternative dimension. Do people still remember “The Twilight Zone”? (The original, of course; the remake was not that great) 

My first thought is that this guy should be checked for either psychiatric disorders or stimulant abuse. Or both. He usually has only one conspiracy theory brewing at any given time, but today they all came out to play. The grant evaluators stole his ideas. It doesn’t matter because they can’t understand them, no one really can (not even him, I often think). His neighbors are sabotaging his research, changing the settings on equipment and peeing in his cell cultures (he said that, I swear he did). His students are faking data, possibly working for foreign powers while they are at it. All that is missing are secret coded messages on Twitter from the Illuminati, the Free Masons, Opus Dei, the Communists, the Fascists, the Neo-communists, the Neo-fascists, Animal Righters, Flat Earthers, Anti-Vaxxers. No, wait, he is listing a few of those now… It’s too much, I have to tune out, look out onto infinity and recite haikus to match his garbled speech.

I’m a great believer in the social duties of science. And one of them is that it can successfully employ some of our more… How do we say this now? Special Minds? That does not sound right. Unique Talents? OK, how about this: creative scientific research can put to great use minds that would otherwise be wasted, because their bearers would be committed, or in jail. 

Yet, there is a fine line to all this, and I’m not sure it’s even fine in this case. While I make a note to check when his next mandatory medical evaluation will be, I just hope there is a Nature paper in this dude’s near future, for all of our sakes.

7 PM

He peeks in, “just to say hi”.  Sure buddy, I’ll bite. 

We’ll amicably chat about the issues of the day. And I’ll pretend you didn’t come in to start measuring the office for drapes, and see how the awards you can’t stop talking about will fit on the shelves. Most scientists despise admin jobs. But, on the other hand, Director sure looks good on your CV. He didn’t want it before, when all this crap was brewing. What a shocker. But it will end soon, one way or another. And he’ll be waiting in the wings, blaming whatever goes wrong on my poor management skills. 

Fine with me, that’s what I did with the previous Director. 

In a nice way, I try to believe, but who am I kidding?

8 PM (via Skype)

This was not wise at all… But where they are it’s earlier, this was the only slot I had, and I don’t predict anything unexpected. They are a great fit for the Institute. But, as a couple, they want us to hire both of them, at equivalent positions. Who wouldn’t ask for the exact same thing in their situation? After all, it means uprooting, leaving a country they are probably very familiar with at this stage, starting over in more ways than one.

Except that won’t work in the short term; two hires is always harder to run by a Board who cares very little about equalitarian relationships, by the way. And their CVs are not exactly similar, I’m sorry to say. My previous suggestion was that we would hire the “better” one as the Principal Investigator, while the other would have some sort of lower technical position until we could figure it out, or the grants came flowing in. To be honest I forget which one of them was which, but that plan did not go over well… In fact, I felt like the complete opposite of a marriage counsellor. 

But they really want to leave where they are. Politics, being closer to what they still consider home, the kids starting to be more comfortable in a “foreign” culture; the usual things. Again, can’t blame them. But in a way I’m almost sorry that, after skewering me on the spot last time, they are basically agreeing with what I put forward. I almost slip and tell them so; but I don’t. Six years on this job will teach you something. 

Plus, now I can committedly hint to “Match my offer, or else!” lady that it could very well be “or else!”. Her lab space would be perfect for them, and it’s always good to have options.

9 PM

As I walk home, I wonder if this was the sort of exercise I was supposed to write. The Seminar person was not super-clear on that (are they ever? on anything?)… Maybe I should focus on something else? There are so many interesting things happening in my lab… I hope to immerse myself in them tomorrow, while I try to (or try hard to pretend to) solve the more egregious or reasonable issues my (mostly) wonderful researchers have piled on before the next round of periodical evaluation interviews. 

I wish I could write more about the beauty of well-rounded experiments sometimes, I really do. It’s just not as cathartic I guess. And at this stage I’m more about catharsis than anything else.

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About the author

João Ramalho-Santos is an Associate Professor at the University of Coimbra, Portugal, and a regular contributor to LabLit.com. He conducts research in reproductive biology at the Center for Neuroscience and Cell Biology, University of Coimbra, Portugal. His fiction has been published in Nature.