Where brains are always on the menu! Serving up a heaping portion of the latest neuroscience news, plus a side of social commentary expertly seasoned with action potentials and cognitive functions. Garnished with general thoughts on science, ethics, and evolution. For dessert, enjoy a sickeningly-sweet understanding of human behavior!

Friday, March 10, 2006

Late night rant-- Who am I?

What do you think scientists are like? Are we a bunch of aloof ivory-tower eggheads? Do we not care or notice what goes on in the world around us? Are we goofy, endearing nerds with pocket protectors who mumble a lot and trip over our own feet? Do we have great compassion for humanity and work for the advancement of society as a whole? Or are we just in it to make a buck?

I think people get a terrible impression of scientists. Certainly cretins like George Deutsch make a mockery of us, as if scientific knowledge was this vast postmodern melting pot of weak ideas easily supplanted by the next uncredentialed toady fool with a metaphysical ax to grind. I mean come on, who the hell do you think you are, Mr. Scientist?

But popular portrayals aren't much better. Read on...

For instance, recall Ghostbuster's Peter Venkman (played by Bill Murray) who cooks his goofy parapsychological research, goading pretty young college students into believing they have ESP, and presumably coaxing his way into their pants, by implication. Can you imagine the gall of such behavior? Who the hell does that Venkman guy think he is?

Or, on the other end of the spectrum, CSI. Cops these days can do it all! Slap on a nice suit, interview eyewitnesses, collect evidence at the crimescene, take said evidence to the mobile lab, extract 30-year-old DNA from a carpet thread inside of a bleach bottle, throw it on a gel, and image it with one hand... all while sipping a latte and driving to court with the other, to obtain a warrant 3 minutes before the statute of limitations expires then lead a SWAT team into the lying perp's crack house, save the dying hostage, make the bust, and extract the confession just in time to exonerate some poor blind priest on his way to the electric chair for a crime he didn't commit. Science, apparently, is brash, sexy, completely incidental to other endeavors and pathetically easy to conduct by the seat of your pants. Jerry Orbach, you were a troglodyte by comparison.

Or consider your average Intelligent Design Creationist. ID, too, is sexy. ID purports to reveal the mind of God hand of a designer. ID "science" is done by writing popular books that purportedly overturn the godless status quo. ID scientists regularly preach give lectures to the faithful interested at local churches community centers. ID scientists are regularly found testifying in court, brave in the face of the Evil Darwinian Orthodoxy. Who do you think you are, Mr. Darwinist?

This is not reality. If you want to do science, you're in the lab. You're in the lab a lot. Sometimes you forget what the sun looks like. You gotta pay your dues. That means laying your intellect bare for harsh criticism for years on end. Committee members and advisors constantly challenging you. Who the hell do you think you are? What makes you think you can succeed in this field?

A scientist makes a commitment to years of schooling long past what is legally required, and must possess a burning drive to push the envelope of our knowledge. A scientist is not generally reimbursed well, especially during graduate school.

And yes you have to "do it all", but not like it's done on CSI: Miami. Many days you go home reeking of monkey piss, or covered in rat shit and tempera paint (don't ask). All your clothes have grease spots from fixing broken equipment, chemical stains from a spilled reagent here and there, ketchup stains from some disgusting fast food choked down between procedures, or bleach spots from disinfecting the lab.

So with that in mind, I propose the following job description:

Position: Postdoctoral Researcher in Behavioral Neurobiology

Applicant should be able to demonstrate proficiency at the following:
Electrician, mechanic, carpenter, painter, plumber, computer programmer, graphic designer, engineer, janitor, accountant, author, publicist, editor, public relations specialist, communications director, animal trainer, veterinary assistant, surgeon, secretary, manager, and someday (hopefully) CEO.

Those are just the skills that enable you to do your work, which includes basic laboratory techniques, histology and immunocytochemistry, stereological analysis, molecular biology, behavioral analyses, statistical analyses. Chronic exposure to pathogens, carcinogens, and teratogens is a must.

Pay is not commensurate with experience. You cannot expect to earn 6 figures in your lifetime. Most likely you will not make $50,000 a year until after you are 30. Before that, in recognition of spending 12 years on higher education, you can expect post-doctoral pay to start at $38,500 with benefits that are worse than what you just had in graduate school.

Applicant must have developed at least one psychological disorder in graduate school, including but not limited to generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social phobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression, or dysthymia. The applicant must demonstrate that his or her physical health deteriorated in graduate school from lack of exercise and poor diet.

Applicant must be willing to put marriage on hold and live a minimum of 6 hours away from spouse for a period of three years. Visits home will not be more frequent that once a month. If your cats haven't forgotten who you are by the end of the first year, you're going home too much. Applicant must also have demonstrated a willingness to forego time with sick and dying relatives and skip out on funerals when required.

The applicant will be responsible for procuring residence on friends' couches and spare beds until welcome is worn out due to a lack of ability to pay two rents or general disenchantment sets in. During a dry spell, applicant may sleep in lab or on the floor in graduate student offices until somebody complains. Showers are provided adjacent to the animal colony. The applicant may unofficially crash in a physician's on-call room if he or she is able to fool security into granting access. All meals will be consumed in graduate student office, consisting of prepackaged boxed pasta meals or grilled cheese prepared over a portable electric burner using camping utensils. In the event that the burner is unavailable, hot plates from lab can be used. Trips to hospital cafeteria may be made in the event that an extra couple bucks are found. During final year, applicant may solicit funds from parents and move into an Extended Stay America where the air conditioner floods the room, the hot/cold water faucets are reversed, and the bathroom door locks from the outside.

So who am I? I'm tenacious. I can be ground down but never stopped. Repeated setbacks fuel my desire to overcome an obstacle and solve the problem. I am calculating; after dusting myself off, I plan a new approach before trying again. I show up to work every day because ultimately my job gives me a chance to improve lives. It isn't about money but the excitement of discovering something completely new and the prospect of alleviating human suffering. Sure I can withdraw into my work, oblivious to the world around me. But isn't that a good thing? Lives are improved by informed experts who fully immerse themselves in a problem. Does that make me arrogant? Maybe. Any headstrong person who speaks with well-earned authority can labeled "arrogant". Force-of-will is what it takes to succeed in this racket and to foster progress. And that is a good trait to have. Problems only get solved when tackled head-on.

I'm not satisfied with quick non-answers to hard questions. I possess both righteous indignation and humility in the face of ignorance. I reject the idea that religiosity automatically makes someone an expert on anything, especially matters of science. And I just might know what the hell I'm talking about. Who the hell do I think I am, spouting such arrogant, highbrow bullshit?

Back off man. I'm a scientist.


  • There is no u in religiosity

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3/10/2006 12:47:00 PM  

  • Standing ovation. I agree with 90% of what you said. The remaining 10% comes from my discovery that I can, and will, blaze through grad school with the healthiest and happiest of minds. Grad students need not automatically qualify for one or more clinical research studies in psychiatry.

    By Blogger Katie, at 3/10/2006 02:13:00 PM  

  • This post could be the basis of a future bestseller:
    Saints and Scientists: exposing redundancy through the cunning use of Occam's razor.

    The Verge Limbo Press [publishers of the best seller: "Republican Corruption Scandals for Dummies"] would be willing to publish such a work.
    If you are freakishly photogenic and/or interested in one of the following activities: fire-eating, basejumping, pretzel yoga, or bullfighting, a six-figure advance will be arranged


    By Blogger vergelimbo, at 3/10/2006 02:51:00 PM  

  • Good stuff! I linked to it on my LJ.

    By Anonymous jokermage, at 3/10/2006 04:49:00 PM  

  • This is precisely why our ideal candidate for positions in software design, systems design, and even project management will be always be a scientist: they are versatile, trained in practicalities, and almost always happy to see a better pay cheque. :D

    Then they leave, because without the thrill of discovery, they are unfulfilled. Oh yeah, they got that Saab. But otherwise unfulfilled.

    By Anonymous BMurray, at 3/10/2006 05:23:00 PM  

  • Daaaaaamn. I don't have your credentials, so I'm glad it's you that's said this- and I have been craving this precise rant for what seems like years.

    The discounting of science- and thus, what scientists do- isn't just a function of the current atmosphere of bragging stupidity that's been fostered by the gonad-driven ignorami currently holding high offices. It's also a function of fear- fear of the unknown- fear of my own inadequacies- fear that if I admit that you know more about this than I do, I am turning over power to you and admitting that you are better than I am. From this mindset, admitting the worth of science is a direct line to surrendering personal autonomy.

    Or they could just have their heads up their asses. But it's probably somewhere between that and fear.

    And- in case I wasn't clear on this earlier- well said. Well done.

    By Blogger Scientiae, at 3/10/2006 05:40:00 PM  

  • I'm glad a theorist.

    "Force-of-will is what it takes to succeed in this racket and to foster progress.": Amen! (Thankfully, my time in actual labs is spent visiting and being explained things, and I can soak away the hours in other enivrons.)

    By Blogger Mason the Unlikely, at 3/10/2006 07:54:00 PM  

  • Hahahahahaha! I'm an astronomer, but it's still true. :) I may not like how most of "us scientists" are so snotty at times, but I certainly agree they've done their time. I did a similar analysis/summary about how long it takes to get anywhere in science.

    Found you through sclerotic_rings.

    By Blogger zandperl, at 3/10/2006 09:37:00 PM  

  • I skipped QM today, drank some beer, played guitar. There are samples in the lab needing characterization. A paper ready but for these confirmations. What the hell, the Les Paul sounded majestic

    By Anonymous rat-terrier, at 3/10/2006 09:47:00 PM  

  • I'm not what you would call a scientist; I'm a systems geek with a specialisation in languages, but I think a lot of what you wrote is also applicable to any field requiring graduate work, and graduate school in just about any discipline.

    I'm 31 now and I'd be thrilled if I were making $50K/a; that'd be the most money I've ever made in my life. :)

    The modern American discourse is, admittedly, lacking in scientific rigour; even a lay person like myself can tell that. The no-necks in charge seem to have a very good grasp of rhetoric, alas, speaking of damaging one's field...

    By Blogger Interrobang, at 3/11/2006 01:18:00 AM  

  • HALLELUJAH and RAMEN. Been thinking this since I fell for neuroscience and I have just realized that I have to explain my field... to people who want to *tell* me about my field... who aren't neuroscientists. Like, whaaa? Does it make sense to argue physics with Stephen Hawking if you're not a physicist? I have to, in general, TEACH people who attack/debate/twist/argue science. Interesting dynamic, gives me practice, & it's kind of like active studying. I'm not even in grad school yet; yes, undergrads get it. Go ahead and call me a moron, even though my work might help PROGRESS HUMANITY. Jeeez. So, high-five!

    By Blogger gonesavage, at 3/11/2006 01:28:00 AM  

  • Bravo.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3/11/2006 04:13:00 AM  

  • I think you've hit the nail on the head well and truly.

    By Blogger JM O'Donnell, at 3/11/2006 08:12:00 AM  

  • *wild applause*

    Well said. I'm envious of your lucrative first postdoc salary, though. Sight more than I get on my second, but then I'm from overseas.

    By Blogger MissPrism, at 3/11/2006 09:00:00 AM  

  • Hints:

    1. Do NOT do your postdoc in NY, SF, Boston, or anywhere else that you have to pay >1000/mo. for a flat. You can do science of equal caliber in lots of other places where you can actually live well on 35-40k a year.

    2. As a postdoc in a well-run lab essentially your only responsibility is to advance human knowledge. This is a remarkable privilege, to some of us at least worth the significant tradeoffs. Amazingly, you do not have to be royalty or on retainer to royalty. You merely have to live reasonably frugally. By the standards of consumption in the U.S., that puts you in the lower middle class. You're smart; you can eat well, live well, even travel if you are smart and frugal.

    3. Work reasonable hours. Sometimes you will work 60 or 70 hour weeks, but this should be the exception, not the rule. Hours in the lab, beyond a certain point, do NOT correlate with productivity. In the lab in which I was a postdoc we averaged 50 hours a week, typically spread over 5 1/2 days. Yes, I worked another 12 or so hours a week at home, reading and writing, analyzing data, etc. I LIKE this work. YOU SHOULD NOT BE IN SCIENCE IF YOU DON'T LIKE IT. Our boss was in 10-12 hours a day and NEVER came in on weekends. We had a very high per capita publication rate, in good journals, and most of us have gotten very good jobs in academia or industry. I work MUCH harder as an assistant professor than I did as a postdoc. I *love* my job. To the extent that I am stressed, it's because I don't want to disappoint my students.

    3a. Sleep enough. I averaged 7-8 hours a night during my postdoc.
    You'll get more done, and be happier.

    3b. Exercise. You'll get more done, and be happier. I promise.

    4. Only 3 years 6+ hours away from your spouse? How about 5 years of grad school. but that was our fault. What can I say? We were idiots.

    By Anonymous Stumpy, at 3/11/2006 02:41:00 PM  

  • The 3 years were in grad school. We didn't think that through to well either. Originally it was supposed to be a matter of months.

    By Blogger Evil Monkey, at 3/11/2006 02:56:00 PM  

  • Dude, I NEVER got a night at Extended Stay America.

    I spent whole weekends sleeping on a yoga mat on the floor of my office - and I never thought twice about it.

    By Blogger element, at 3/11/2006 03:12:00 PM  

  • You got an office? Lucky bastard.

    By Anonymous Stumpy, at 3/11/2006 03:16:00 PM  

  • Yeah, what's this about having your own office? I'm jealous!

    When your dad gets cancer and realizes he can't take it with him, he's more than willing to part with the cash. Believe me, I would've stuck with friend's couches and sleeping at work if it could've changed that outcome.

    I spent weeks on a camping pad/sleeping bag in the grad student offices (a cubicle area shared with 6 other ppl, not nearly as romantic as it sounds stumpy) or on the -80 chest freezer in the preceding two years, so I was grateful for the Extended Stay. Hey, I got to stop using the car as a closet!

    By Blogger Evil Monkey, at 3/11/2006 03:51:00 PM  

  • Wow, this is pretty crazy. Just how many of us have these ridiculous life experiences?

    By Blogger Evil Monkey, at 3/11/2006 03:52:00 PM  

  • I don't sleep on the couch of the grad student office any more because my antidepressant medication is at home. If I skip taking it, the next day will be a write off. Hmmmm, but I guess I could store a few of the pink pills in my desk next to the toothbrush and toothpaste ...

    By Blogger Grad007, at 3/12/2006 03:39:00 AM  

  • Yes!

    But let's not forget that Dr. Peter Venkman ("Back off, man. I'm a scientist") was the eponymous inspiration for the irreplaceable javascript debugger.

    By Blogger rje, at 3/12/2006 10:46:00 AM  

  • "I possess both righteous indignation and humility in the face of ignorance."

    Hahaha.. ok, sure. Wouldn't all this time spent blogging be better spent easing human suffering?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3/14/2006 05:45:00 PM  

  • Suffering is borne, in part, of ignorance. Sharing knowledge alleviates ignorance. I fail to see the conflict.

    Not to mention, blogging can be therapeutic for the blogger. I must also mitigate my own sources of irritation in order to be effective in the lab.

    By Blogger Evil Monkey, at 3/14/2006 05:54:00 PM  

  • I had my own office for a while (two years). I could touch all four walls without moving from my computer. And yet I fit a computer desk, a writing desk, and a beanbag chair that I spent a couple nights in. The main benefit was that the thermostat in my office controlled the whole wing, so I could keep it at a temperature that I found comfortable.

    I traded it in for an office with a WINDOW that I shared with only one other grad and was four times as big. We only got to keep it a year, as a postdoc bumped us out of it into a shared office without windows where we could collectively touch all four walls without moving from our desks.

    By Blogger zandperl, at 3/15/2006 12:06:00 AM  

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