Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The learning curve apparently equals a flatline

**warning long long post

Or possiblely a line with a negative slope?? I am not quite sure which is more telling of the complete absence of a curve. Maybe that is a sign I should not be in research? The other possible title could be fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.

This blog started after a really really horrible lab meeting where I thought I was being personally attacked. I was feeling very alone in my lab and feeling like I had to prove that I could 'cut' it, that one could be a mom and a scientist. At the time, I interpreted the negativity was stemming from a dispute that I had with MPD (male postdoc), he had been handed my project and we had a big blowout about it. I now have come to believe that although that dispute may have been a contributing factor, the truth of the matter is that most of it stemmed from frustration with our PI and the anger that he was about to repeat the same things with me again. I am starting to believe this because additional information has come to light about the history of what is going on, there is danger in keeping your head down - you don't know when you're about to get run over.
Before I continue, I will apologize. In looking over previous posts, I am realizing that although I had composed wonderful posts in my head, I had not actually posted anything online. So really you my reader as no idea where I am coming from, no context for what is happening. Here is all the gory details:


I became a graduate student in sept06, though I was working as technician in the lab prior to that. During my time as a technician I interacted primarily with a now former postdoc (FPD), M3, and male postdoc (MPD). PI was not around but I was not frustrated by the situation because there were senior individuals willing to train and as long someone was there to work with, it was fine. FPD was hard to work with but I did learn from him and took his criticism with a grain of salt. If he was being an ass I told him so, but I needed to learn molecular cloning techniques so he was going to be the one to teach me, along with very nice graduate student in another lab. The project that I had was to create a tool that we could use to study protein X and Y. This tool required a considerable amount of molecular biology. I started working on designing a construct but was not able to get very far in 3 months. I had a plan, purified DNA and tested some digests. Then I went on leave for 1 year. In that time a student came in and worked on the construct day in and day out, practically 24-7. 12 months later she had created a vector, sent it for injection into ES cells and completed southern blots. Now we were just waiting for the mice to be born. Which is when I came back from leave.
Rightly or wrongly this project was supposed to be handed back to me. I was not happy that someone else got to do the vector work, it was what I really was excited about and wanted to learn how to do, but I did go on leave and the work needs to get done. I was firm that the student would get full credit for creating the animals.
Once founders (the initial transgenic mice) were born, they had to be screened and crossed onto the correct mice species. Furthermore, we had to make plans about what to do if the mice went germline. Since I had other projects to work on simultaneously, I figured I would not expend vast amounts of time (all day everyday) designing experiments for an if, especially since we had some basic experiments and testing that we wanted to due if these mice were successful in becoming germline (>6month process). Breeding mice and thinking about if projects does not take alot of time (few hours a week), but apparently I was not able to handle it and the project was handed to MPD. I was extremely frustrated by this because (1) PI did not inform me of this (learned about it from MPD) and he did it right when I came back from mat leave (2) he did it because I was not around for the first 2.5 weeks that I came back even though I specifically told him I would not be around because monkey was transitioning into PT daycare (3) he did not even give me an opportunity to try to learn how to do the work (ie to breed mice etc) (4) when I spoke to him about it, said it was because MPD has had bad luck and needs to have a project he can take with him if he wants to be a PI. This was extremely extremely frustrating because I do not trust MPD. I felt that MPD was jumping onto yet another project, trying to get onto something that would give him a publication / project stream as opposed to developing his own. Furthermore I trust MPD's ability to teach or do science. MPD has a hierarchy which goes PI, postdocs, grad student, technicians (top to bottom). MPD has been in the lab as long as I have and has not been successful scientifically speaking, ie he has no publications, he has not established research themes / projects successfully, little effective mentorship / training of students. The two female postdocs have done that. I trust their ability to do and teach science.
So that is why I started this blog. I felt alone, frustrated and angry. But at the time I took responsibility and felt it was my fault for going on leave, and then only being around part-time due to a combination of being sick, lack of daycare and monkey being sick.

the present
Since that day of the lab meeting, I have been trying really really hard to keep my chin up, not blame my PI or others, and to take control of the reins. I found the money (by denying myself everything) to send the monkey to daycare fulltime. I spent a bunch of time doing background reading and prepared a mini-proposal. Since my presentation of mini-proposal and I have been working on learning the techniques / protocols for the proposed projects. I am currently setting up 3 different projects. PI specifically asked me to tackle all 3 at one time. (I personally would like to get one going, while it is in the collection phase start the next one). One project involves growing up ex-vivo cells, it takes ~ 1 month for those cells to mature, so I learned how to extract those cells and started to grow them. While they were growing I started on the second project which involves getting a cell line to express a protein (via a retro-viral infection) and running a bunch of assays. I have been working on that. The process to get the cell line to express the protein is about 7 days, we can not run the assays unless cell line of interest expresses the protein. I did some readings, figured out how to do it, and tried it. My control worked (empty vector) but the experimental (vector with protein DNA) did not. This was OK because I knew that I was able to do the protocol correctly because both my cell line of interest and my control cell line (3T3's) took up the empty vector but neither took up X (neither 3t3s or cell line of interest). I went back to beginning to find sources of error (not a good DNA prep??), then came in last week on a holiday (a long weekend) to clean the incubator (not my job but I did it) and to start the experiment again. Came in the next day (near the end of the week) and had an bacterial infection. I chose to start over this week instead of coming in all weekend.
Met with PI on monday, updated him with what happened, told him I was starting again that day. Next day PI tells FPD to get the cells expressing proteins of interest. I can learn by watching her or by doing it in a side by side project - we both do it, if hers works great we have what we need and I've walked through a protocol but never actually got it to work independently. I have very good relationship with FPD according to her PI told her she has to do it but she is not keen and told PI that. PI came upto me and said "FPD is very very keen to help you get this infections working, she can teach you this and you can teach her your technique."

I could take it that he's trying to ensure that I have training and mentorship but it strangely feels like having my project shuffled off me yet again, and I am sure he will have very valid reasons. He wants the data now, I will take time because I am learning. I have tried it 2x before I have been told that I can no longer to keep at it. So I guess my learning curve is n=2 which is staight upwards? I would like to point out that prior to this incident, I had been talking to FPD, discussing my steps going forward and asking her input. You learn science by doing it. Why would I do experiments that don't count? What is my motivation then?

In case it is not clear, I am done. I am leaving this lab asap and possibly the PhD path. I want those letters, PhD behind my name but I must assess if it is worth the cost. I am 31 and have an 18 month old. I would like to have another child in the next couple years. We are not yet going into debt but we're not moving forward either. It take 4-5 years for someone straight out of undergrad to finish a Phd. I have an MSc, so I am not taking classes and that should shave at least one year off the time, making it 3-4. I almost 1 year in and am no where near 2-3 years from being done. I have been trained in science, know how to trouble shoot. I can use a pipette. I know how to ask a question and design a hypothesis I should not be having the rug pulled out from under me all the time. But he's done it to all the other grad students so why am I surprised? Oh yeah they weren't allowed to tell me until after I started.


Mad Hatter said...

I'm sorry to hear about the situation you're sounds awful.

There are PIs who are mentors, and PIs who are bosses. The former understand that part of their responsibility is to train and mentor grad students, which involves letting them make mistakes and giving them time to learn. The latter will do whatever is most expedient regardless of how it impacts the training of grad students. Yes, there is pressure to generate data and publish quickly to get funding, but all PIs have those pressures and some still manage to be good mentors.

This brings me to my next point, which is that the good PIs do exist. I agree with DrDrA's comment on an earlier post about developing a "radar" for things that are not directly said when talking to current students in the lab. You can also look up former lab members through their papers or alumni database and contact them. People who are no longer directly under the PI's control may be more forthcoming. Also, the local grad student grapevine can be very, very informative. But ultimately, there's probably no foolproof way to avoid a real bait-and-switch...sadly, one just has to take one's chances to some extent when choosing labs.

As for whether to leave the PhD path, I think it might depend somewhat on whether the kind of science you'd like to do requires a PhD. If you can get a research position doing the science you love without those three letters, then maybe that might be a good path for you. I'm not trying to discourage you from finishing your PhD--I almost left grad school at one point (not for PI reasons) and am really glad I stuck it out--but I understand the real-life pressures that make one wonder whether those three letters are really worth it.

Good luck...and I hope it all works out for you.

Nicky said...

That whole situation just sucks. Still, I hate to see you quit grad school because of one bad PI. I would venture a guess that, right now, you're really frustrated about the PI, the situation, the experiments, the lack of trust, etc., but that ALL seems to be tied to the PI. Sometimes, when you're in the middle of it all, it's hard to distinguish between making a small change (new PI) that is likely to help, and making a HUGE change (dropping out of PhD) that is guaranteed to help, but at a huge cost.

If you're turned off from science, drop out of school. If you have decided that you want a different career path, drop out of school. But your current frustrations can be solved by switching PIs, a much less drastic move, so I would try that first.

Just my 2 cents. Best of luck with your decision!

The bean-mom said...

Your PI sounds duplicitous and sneaky. On top of everything else you've said.

I agree with Nicky. If this PI is the ONLY reason you are so frustrated with grad school, please just find another (good) PI. If you really love science and want the research training and career options that can only be afforded by a Ph.D. program... don't drop out due to one slimeball.

But also... if it's something more than that... there's no shame in leaving if, all in all, you've decided it's best for you and your family. I just don't want your interaction with one jerk to decide it for you.

Arlenna said...

Well, if by any chance you are at Purdue then come find out who I am for real... I need somebody to help work out some complex cancer biology and head up a potential vet school dog cancer collaboration...

There will be good PIs, many of them, out there--the trick is finding someone who has your training in mind. They need to be secure enough in themselves to allow you to learn, and to recognize which things you are coming up to speed on vs. not so they can project forward to your imminent productivity. But so many people are so clueless and uncomfortable with the long view.

CAE said...

This sounds like the right move for you - I wish you luck finding a situation that's a better fit for you, whether it's in or out of academia.