Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Patience is a Villainy

I was asked earlier yesterday what I would like to eat for dinner. I responded, as honestly and sweetly as I could, that I would like to eat the heads of my employees and drink their blood.

Make no mistake, I like the members of my lab (and the rest of the institute where I work) very much. There's something very steadfast and soothing about the Dutch that allows for things to happen like the complete collapse of their government over the weekend and nary more of a response than, "Ja, well, they didn't do much anyway..."

So perhaps I was in a bit of a haste when I elected to expand my group from 4 to 6 of us in the span of about 10 minutes. All this work! Who's going to do it? I want to go back to the safety of my office! Actually, that's not entirely true, my office is not completely mine, but a perfect example of the fact that the Netherlands has the highest population density in the world. I've had more space to myself playing Two Minutes in the Closet.

We're trying to get a paper out. Anyone in science (or perhaps any career where your net worth is strictly based on your publications) knows that for a job like this you set a deadline, and then add about 4 months. Ideally I would have had this out at Christmas. I believe Valentine's Day is long gone, March is tomorrow, and we still have two (ok, three) experiments to get done. This puts us back to about Thanksgiving, 2018.

My technician deciding to take a flying leap off of a 2 meter high wall and breaking both feet 3 weeks ago while on holiday didn't help. My feeble attempt to ban all holidays for the rest of the group got the well-deserved middle finger from my grad student who then went and plugged himself into a beer IV for a week. One of my masters students came up to me yesterday and said she felt nauseous and perhaps should go home, to which I almost responded, "Just stick your finger down your throat and get back to work..." But I didn't, so now she's down for the count. The darling new bachelor student in a flash of over-enthusiasm and perhaps also in sympathy for me having to do actual lab work, managed to maim a western blot, a northern gel, and an RNA isolation in one morning. Every PCR today failed, every sequencing submission. The climax of the day was knocking over my masters student's bucket of about 2 liters of melted ice onto her bench where she had left her lab notebook (to which I immediately thought, well, that will teach her to get nauseous and leave early). Who do I have to blame for this?

Myself, of course.

The horrible truth about molecular biology is that it hardly ever works. Any given experiment requires anywhere from 10 to hundreds of different buffers, antibodies, primers, etc, the malfunction of any which one results in another gel thrown in the disposal. Which might not be so bad if the actual process of getting to the disposal was a fun or enlightening one...it isn't. Most experiments require pipetting tiny volumes of liquid reagents into tiny tubes over, and over, and over. It's not far off from the factory worker who drills the same hole or seals the same box day in, day out. I take that back, at the end of the day, the factory worker can at least look at the successful stack of boxes or series of drilled holes...molecular biology doesn't even give up a reward at that level. Another tiny tube of clear liquid, or staring misty-eyed at another gel in the disposal, that's a typical ending of the molecular biologist's day.

The greatest mentor of my life, an MD in oncology, once described to me the difference between working in the lab and working in the hospital. He told me that walking into a hospital for work in the morning really sucks. It smells rank, everybody there is sick or injured or stressed. But at the end of the day you can leave with the sense that you've actually accomplished something, that you helped to improve the health and/or quality of life of some individuals, all of whom you could name. Going into the molecular biology lab in the morning on the other hand is usually pretty exciting. I'm going to start a cool experiment, I'm going to get results from that last experiment...and by the end of the day you're again looking at that damn disposal and considering leaving work via the ledge. Maybe some day your work will have an impact on the health of some individuals, maybe some gene function you help to clarify will eventually be considered when making a drug that enhances the longevity or quality of life for some people some years in the future. But you don't know this for sure and you certainly don't know their names. So all it really comes down to is where you publish and how much that determines your sense of self satisfaction. When moving to Europe I was confronted with the fact that I was going to hereon be judged by my "impact factor"...take the quality of the journals you've published in, which each have a numerical score determined by Dr. Godonlyknows, add them up and that's your worth. This wasn't the case in the US. Your publication list was important, of course, but it wasn't broken down so bluntly that you are just in fact, a number.

So back to why all these mistakes are my fault.

The precision required to get this job right is difficult to teach. Only after throwing your Nth gel out do you know why there were those streaks in the EtBr stain of the RNA...because you overloaded it. You have to allow your staff for mistakes, that is the only way they will learn.

Today went like this:

Every PCR worked, we cloned a gene ourselves that we then didn't have to order, and we got a lead in a screen that is exciting enough for me to want to start hyperventilating. I feel like I'm on top of the world, like I just scaled Everest, like I was Christian Laettner scoring the famous last 3 pointer against Kentucky in that semifinal NCAA round. I wanted to kiss every member of my staff and plaster them with gold stars. I no longer wish to drink their blood.

This is what we signed up for, the volatile stream of lows spliced infrequently with the highs of actually discovering something or figuring something out that no one in the history of humankind has ever done before. The feeling of which is indescribable.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Dutch Course

It's been so easy to put off the learning of Dutch for past 18 months. Who in the world would bother to learn a language that is only spoken in a square area the size of a postage stamp that also makes you hock luggies with every "g"? Add to the fact that everyone here speaks better English than I do, and my motivation to learn Dutch has been on par with dental work. It certainly doesn't help either that, knowing full well they speak better English than you, the Dutch will immediately switch if you brave it and try your rudimentary "Ik wil een witte wijn" and will respond with, "Would you like to try the Sonoma chardonnay?" This is most discouraging.

However when my colleague, another American and dear friend who has lived here for over 12 years with a very well established lab forwarded me the email solicitation for Dutch classes with following text in the body: "A-hem!", I finally felt obliged to go.

Class is once a week with a guy, Mickeal, who is a shaggy blond 27ish year old teaching this for the first time voluntarily for reasons I can't figure out except that maybe it's community service for a drunk driving incident. Tonight was the second class, held at his flat instead of the lovely academic building on the cobblestone street with canal running along the front. I had forgotten to do my homework, which I managed to weasel out of by emphatically agreeing that we study pronunciations for the class and do double homework corrections next week.

There's 8 of us in his living room, your typical partitioned shoebox with steep steps and no heat. We've got lists of words with common vowel combinations -ee, -ie, -oo, etc along with a mishmash of vocabulary examples. So now do I not only know that the Chinese restaurant down the street Leen is not pronounced "lean" but "lane" but I also know that "kukeleku" is what a rooster says.

I just can't wait to work that word into polite conversation.

The fact is that listening to Dutch is so close to American English I often mistake conversationalists to be from New Jersey when in fact they're from Rotterdam. The accent is practically the same, and so many of the words sound the same. Although they do spell them in a very silly way...we played Scrabble in a pub once and the most common letters after E were J's and Z's. Still, it's been getting easier to understand people, and I can definitely feel for the tantrum-ridden two year old who can get what's being said and still not be able to speak a word.

Some of the other vocab words on the work sheet which I'm sure to use daily include "luik" (shutter), "zeis" (sickle) and two words "luk" and "lak" which apparently were so arcane the teacher didn't even know them.

This is not to say that no relevant words were taught, I now know how to say I ride on my bike ("Ik rijd op mijn fiet") and that the weather sucks ("het weer is rot").

We'll see how the rest of the course goes. Rumor has it that there's a convent in the country where they lock you up for two weeks and you emerge speaking fluently. Despite the fact that this course method may well consist of kneeling on bricks and self flogging, it would be worth it to be able to say back to the bartender, "Nee, geef mij een biertje, ik haat chardonnay".

Monday, February 15, 2010

Starting from scratch

Today my second masters student started. My technician is home with two broken feet and my grad student is drunk in a ditch somewhere wearing a Kermit the Frog costume (it's carnival time in his hometown of Masstricht). Meaning that despite having a prolific group consisting of 6 of us now, I was forced out of my comfy office where for the last year I've been happily staring at Pubmed abstracts and back into the lab to do actual work. So I ran a northern gel. Overloaded it and had to pitch it. Another 2.4g of agarose down the drain.

There really should be some cut off point for group leaders after which they are no longer allowed back in the lab to do real work.

The background goes like this: My postdoc was at MIT, about 20 minutes away from where I grew up. Having boomeranged back to the Boston area more times than I care to count, coupled with a nasty divorce and the fact that no one in the states was hiring group leaders 2 years ago, I got out. As far as I could. The next thing I knew I was living in a country where they fry gravy and serve it with mayo (this would be the Netherlands).

I'm here. I love it. I hate it. I love it more.

The group leader position is by far and away the most difficult job I've every had. As a grad student and postdoc you are driven solely by yourself. No one particularly cares when you graduate, as evidenced by the shocking number of students at Duke (where I did my PhD) who have been mired there for 9 years. (I will always admire the one guy who quit because he won a game show). Now the powers that be want a return on their investment. I have no idea how much cash was spent on me to set the lab up, but my guess is that it is upwards of an amount that could bail out Greece.

So what is the purpose of this, aside from being tired of sharing my witty remarks about culture shock through individual emails. One is that I love to write. Two is that I would like those starting positions like mine to know that it's probably like this for everyone, the sense of intense excitement followed by acute panic (I mentioned this to a colleague of mine who replied that he was still waiting for the intense excitement to kick in). Three is that it's hard to be in close touch with everyone back in the states. So...

here goes.