Thursday, September 14, 2006

Does your Mother really have to work here?!

So in our lab (mine and my husband's are currently melded), we try to get people to personally "invest" in their projects because it's their future. We also try to instill in them a sense of community in the lab because the lab environment - how well it runs and how they get along with their colleagues - can greatly impact their's and the lab's success. So to me, these concepts don't seem all that hard. For example:

-we have lab jobs - filling pipet racks, filling water carboy, making shared reagents etc. They rotate quarterly.

-we also have a strict sign in, use, clean up and sign out policy in the tissue culture room. In this way, you should always find the TC hood ready for you when it's your alloted time. Sometimes, the autoclavable waste is full at the end of your session, sometimes the pipet bins need refilling, sometimes the ethanol spray bottle needs refilling. If you do these things when they happen on your "shift", then you should expect that others will do the same for you.

-we ask that you watch shared reagents like gels, antibodies, tissue culture flasks, tissue culture aliquots etc. and when you see them getting low, tell the technician with enough leeway so she can realiquot or reorder to avoid interruptions.

Simple right? Seems like these should be simple human courtesies you learn in kindergarden. Right?

Well, no, actually wrong? Inevitably there is one person in the lab who doesn't feel the need to follow these rules. I interpret this as the "my time is more important that yours so I'll take what I need for my experiments and it's too bad if when it comes to your experiments, they get delayed because the reagent is unavailable" attitude.

Then there's the cleaning up after yourself, good citizen behavior. Especially in the tissue culture room, I find bleach splattered all around, trash on the floor, pipets not refilled waste bins full. This is usually in the morning so of course it's the "I'm in late and want to get home mentality and I know that Dr. Smith will be in first in the morning and will clean it up" mentality.

So I hate to say it but 99% of the time, the problem person is male. And most often, there's one or two females who "see" the lab, notice things and invest in keeping the lab running. Unfortunately, it's usually their experiments which get interrupted by the lack of this other person's lack of social skills.

And so once again, I'm setting up sanctions. Come on people, aren't you 25 years old, and aren't you 31. Why is this so hard? Do you really care that little about your surroundings? Don't you understand that if your labmates are successful, then most likely you and the lab in general will benefit from that? Are you really that self-centered? Does your Mother really have to work here?!

Monday, September 11, 2006

09/11 - and then there was Anna

It's been a sobering day. I watched some of CNN 's re-run of coverage from 09/11/01 and it sure brought back memories. My husband and I were in Nova Scotia on vacation. We had flown up via Logan airport in Boston to Halifax and then rented a car to drive out to where my parents had rented a house on the ocean. It was beautiful weather and a gorgeous location. After a few days there, we took off to drive the Cabot Trail around Cape Breton. We stopped at the half way point to stay at the exquisite Keltic Lodge Resort on Middle Head Pennisula in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. On the morning of 09/11, we took the 1/2 mile trail out to the very end of the Pennisula. On our way back, my husband's cell phone rang. It surprised us because most of Nova Scotia at the time had terrible or no cell phone coverage. It was his brother calling from downtown Manhattan to tell him about the plane flying into the World Trade Center. Fortunately, he was about a mile away from the towers. While on the phone, the second plane hit. We ran to the lodge game room where there was a big screen TV and turned it on. We watched the coverage and as other guests walked through, we explained what was happening. I called my parents back at the beach house to tell them what was going on because I knew there was no TV there and they only got CBC1 on the radio.

Then the plane hit the Pentagon and I remember as clear as day that my husband turned to me and said, "Your country is under attack". I instantly felt sick and my entired gut was tied in knots. I couldn't eat the rest of the day as we drove directly back to be with my parents. We had been scheduled to return shortly but the tiny Halifax airport was now home to over 150 flights who were dirverted when the North American airspace was shut down. And besides, Logan was completely shut down. We thought we would just drive our rental car home but no rental cars were being allowed over the border! We were stuck. We finally drove to Halifax and secured a scarce seat on a train which would take us on a 30-some-odd hour train ride around Maine and through Canada to Windsor Ontario. Our car was parked at the Detroit Airport, just across the Detroit river. Except you had to go over the Ambassador Bridge - a 20 minute drive, on a normal day in history. We hopped in a shared cab with another couple and proceeded to take our 3 hour trip across the bridge and home. I remember stepping through the door of our home, wondering what life would be like after this historical moment.

Fortunately for me though, I don't just have to think about the terrorist attacks on 09/11. Two years ago today on 09/11/04, I was boarding a plane in Amsterdam with my husband and a little bit of a thing, bald-headed, with a cold. It seemed strange to be flying to the US on that day and I couldn't help but wonder if it was so smart to be on a big plane. Still we were coming home after our third and final trip to Russia to bring home our daughter Anna. I will never forget 09/11/01 and what I felt that day. But I also celebrate another 09/11, because a new and promising future began.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Academics, Family and Vacation - my story

This blog comes under the heading of academics and family vacation, as it relates to my current life anyway. I'll try to keep the ranting to a minimum.

Since moving and setting up shop at big Cancer Center a year and a half ago, we have been struggling to find time as a family to "get away" for a vacation. Part of the problem is the lack of actual vacation days we are alloted here and having to accrue them monthly. In this regard, we were actually demoted upon joining the faculty - despite being Associate Professor level, we had to start at the bottom of vacation days along with all the other newbies. No amount of negotiation changed that. A ridiculous policy if you ask me. I doubt a recruited VP at an Academic Administration level would be treated as such. Don't they understand how stressful it is to move a family with two small children and set up two labs, get things running and learn the ropes? Don't they understand the financial stresses involved in a move, with the buying and selling of a house, and how money can be tight for awhile?

ANYWAY, I finally, after 1 1/2 years, found a solution. Four days post labor day at a house on the beach, just an hour drive from home. Said house is on a pedestrian-only beach, near a new fishing jetty and "clubhouse" with small playground. Beach house is also, and maybe most importantly, dirt cheap for the four days after labor day because well, everyone else is back at work and with kids in kindergarden and up. After making sure my grant reviewing, SPORE-writing, summer course-lecturing, seminar-giving, traveling husband agrees to block off the time, our "vacation" is secured. Of course, it's really only going to be 3 days because we can't get in the house until 4pm on that Tuesday and we have to be out by Friday at 11am. Dr Shellie's off to Alaska for two weeks and Abel PharmBoy hung out in Colorado (although he was ill for part of that). Still, these three days seem to have almost magical possibilities for a family who needs a break...........

Packed up Tuesday morning with a car full of food and amenities for beach house living. Arrive a little early to find the house ready and by 4pm the family was running and playing on the beach. Children are jumping in the waves, digging in the sand. The weather is unusually coolish and dry; perfect beach weather. The sun is up but there's a slight cloud cover to give some protection from the UV rays. I call my parents in New England on my cell phone and gush. They're off to Nova Scotia tomorrow for 10 days. I'm in heaven.

After 2 hours on the beach, we come in for a spaghetti dinner. The kids are bathed and put in bed and my husband is taking pictures of the ships and wildlife on the beach. I rock a bit on the swing on the front porch, watching and listening to the waves and breathing in the salt-water air. My son felt a little warm when he went to bed and he's been sniffling the last 4 days. But I chalked it mostly up to wind and sun, and excitement, gave him a little children's Motrin and he went off to slumberland. My daughter was in a lower part of a bunk bed next to him; perfect height for her because she's still in a toddler bed. She seemed right at home there, not at all perplexed by her new surroundings. She covered herself, placed her thumb securely in her mouth and drifted off to sleep as well.

Next morning the kids are up before the sun - no sleeping late on vacations with a 4 and almost 3 year old! We have our cereal with fruit breakfast and by 8:00am we're on the beach, canopy up. My son has a fever of 101 which seems to respond to Motrin and he acts happy enough so we let him run around on the beach. We're hopelessly trying to fly a kite I bought but without success. Are there tips to flying a kite? We're digging holes, the kids are sitting in them and I'm filling them with water. But by 10:30am, my son is dragging and he wants to go inside. My husband follows him and I stay a little longer on the beach with my daughter. When I do go in, I find my son shivering, glassy-eyed and miserable with 102.7 fever. He says his throat is really really really really really sore (and spikey; I love the way kids describe what they feel) and I look inside; it's really red. I give him some more Motrin and wait an hour. The fever's not responding. He's miserable. I'm worried because this isn't the sniffly cold he's had for the past few days that seemed to be getting better and his fevers ALWAYS respond to Motrin. So I call the doctor's office and wait for the nurse to call back. I know them well by now and trust their judgement. She says we need to be worried about Strep throat but maybe we can wait out the night there and see if he's better tomorrow morning. OK, so here's where I'm a wimp. If my kids are sick, I want to be close to the medical care I trust. Although we're only an hour away from home, we're in the middle of nowhere, medically-speaking. I'm used to hanging out around some top notch medical institutions. So we do the dance - should we stay, should we go, stay, go, stay,go - each one waiting for the other to make the decision. As a mother, I think it would be best if he was in his own bed at home, reinforced by the RST (rapid strep test) to tell me whether it's Strep or not. As a person, I desperately want and need to stay! I need the rejuvenation. But I never want to put that in front of the health of my children. We wait and discuss and watch. I check his throat again. It's covered in white spots now.........his fever is still 102.something on full-throttle Motrin.......we better go home.

It takes less than an hour to pack the car and get going. My husband has a headache on it's way to a migraine so I drive. I cry for about the first 20 minutes of the drive. I'm really frustrated, disappointed, depressed, and angry (although not at my son). We arrive home, my son is miserable and he's now throwing up a little. He still tries to swallow some food but all in all, he's unhappy. At bedtime, he's still 102 ish. I check on him several times through the night at at 1:30am, the fever is 101.5 and he hasn't had Motrin for 9 hours. It seems to be subsiding. By 6am, which is when he wakes me up, he's cool. The RST we took later that day at the doctor's office is negative.................. "vacation" over.

Do I regret coming home? No not really. It was what felt right at the time for my son. Am I really really disappointed? Yup, but just writing this made me realize that for them, the experiences they had on the beach were great although short - and that's what matters really. Am I happy? No, I have a cold now myself and my husband is off for 7 days to Europe - 3 of those days he is spending with his brother in England, relaxing. I don't begrudge him that time with his family whom is doesn't see very often but I'm jealous. I never seem to get that downtime anywhere in my life. Maybe that's what being a Mom is all about.

Probably the most important lesson I've learned is that 3-4 days prior to any vacation, I will no longer allow my children to attend any birthday parties. My doctor and I both agree that letting my son attend a party at Chuck E. Cheeses the Saturday before the travel was probably the culprit. I hate those places anyway but this was one of his few special friends from school and he really wanted to go. And so in the end, the kids are fine........and I'll survive...................I hope!

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Young, smart and female - they're out there

Never fear, there are still some bright young women scientists venturing into the academic world. I met one yesterday.

I have been looking for colleagues to inform me and collaborate with me on the issue of tumor stem cells. After emailing another department chairman, I was referred to a new faculty member - M.D., Ph.D, - who was working in this area at my Institution. We met over lunch at the faculty dining room to discuss what I'm doing and what she's doing, and whether there was a potential area of collaboration.

I was struck by how once again, science in general is a very small world. Turns out she did her undergraduate Chemistry degree at an Institution that I know well - Mt. Holyoke College in Western Massachusetts. This is an women's college, in a bucolic setting - in the vicinity of another top rate women's college, Smith College. The Chemistry department is top notch. I know this campus because I spent the final year of my Ph.D. doing experiments there. My first husband was a faculty member in the Chemistry department and after living separately for 1.5 years, I was able to convince my department at MIT to let me finish my final year of experiments out there. This was interesting because I had to establish my own protocols (i.e. radiation, human subjects, etc.), set up fund accounting, and determine what supplies I needed to do my work. Every two weeks I would travel back into Boston for a lab meeting and visit lab supplies to restock. At the time, I was rewashing, reracking and reusing pipet tips. I decided if I ever had to do this to survive in the lab, I would get out of science! I never realized until later though what a great experience this was for me to get a handle on what it meant, in some small way, to run my own lab. This also reminded me that I've always traveled a unique path when it comes to my science. I left graduate school after one year, worked for a year, came back, then finished my research off campus. Now I'm doing this sort-of-temporary, part time faculty position with no definite grasp on how this is all going to play out in my future. Oh well, it keeps life interesting......

In any case, this young faculty member was clearly the product of a good, strong education. I remember the undergraduate women that I met at Mt. Holyoke. They were smart, headstrong and well aware that they would encounter some obstacles in their professional journeys, solely due to their gender. At the time, I thought some of the stuff they were told was a little "over the top". Looking back I'm not so sure. She was outspoken, well read in her area and clearly driven. She had aligned herself well with the leaders in her field in the local area and was just 6 months into her new faculty position. I think she's going to do fine. My only complaint was that she hadn't mastered the art of listening but I suppose you are so involved in the start of your own lab, you forgot that others might have information to convey.

The sad part was she was already painfully aware of how difficult it would be to survive in academic science in the current climate - whether male or female. She was glad to be active in the clinic, despite the time it drained away from her research. At least she could treat patients and bring in a salary if this "research thing" didn't work out. We agreed to talk more after looking into a few articles and I left feeling good about knowing smart young women are still venturing into this thing we call academic science. I hope she makes it.