My graduate education was characterized by alternating neglect and abuse, in a ratio of about 3:1. As many people in their formative years do, I made a vow to never make the same mistakes. One night, like Jerry Maguire, I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning, writing a manifesto of 100 behaviors I would never, ever do in my own lab. Really controversial stuff, like “don’t threaten your students with a bad letter of recommendation” and “don’t make your support for the visa application of an international student or postdoc contingent on their results in lab.”
In this way, graduate school was extremely valuable to me. I learned a lot about the wrong ways to run a lab, and I am a better mentor of graduate students as a result. If anything, I error on the side of taking too much responsibility on myself in lab. I want my students to be successful, and I struggle mightily to give them every opportunity to get good results and publish well.
Of course, I can’t micromanage my students’ projects or the lab anymore. I’ve been back to work a handful of times since the seizure, and I’m starting to handle email business again, but for the most part, I’ve been AWOL since mid April. Which makes me extremely grateful that I work with such excellent, professional colleagues.
The nearby photo is of my lab as it was constituted at the end of 2014. From left to right — me, Erin Arant, Jiajia Li, and Camile Lugarini. Camile has subsequently returned to Brazil to finish her PhD. Erin was a Masters student who has graduated and agreed to stick around as a research technician for the short term. She has made herself indispensable to my lab. Although she only has a few years of research experience at this point, she is practically a full time lab manager, and simultaneously administering UMSL’s next-generation sequencing facility. When we publish our first major research article, Erin will be the lead author, and I have high hopes that we’ll get that paper into a noteworthy journal.
Jiajia is a PhD student who is basically doing the job of a postdoc currently. She is driving the science and strategy of her own project — generating useful results — and managing our various collaborations that I’ve pretty much dumped in her lap while I recuperate. She has never complained about these additional responsibilities that are above and beyond the call of duty for a PhD student who really ought to be working on her up-coming prelim exam than making sure that an analysis for someone half a world away gets done on time. Jiajia will be a great postdoc for someone someday, and I’ll take a great deal of satisfaction in the extent to which I contributed to the success of her career.
My colleagues at UMSL have also been otherworldly in terms of their support and understanding. I’d like to mention names, but so many people have helped with teaching my classes and helping my lab that I worry I may inadvertently leave a name out and offend by mistake. Suffice it to say, my colleagues are fantastic, and my lab would not be humming along as well as it is, without their support. I would like to single out my department chair, Dr. Patty Parker, who has been over to my house a couple times to check on me, and who has been uniformly supportive of my rehabilitation, teaching, and research programs. When I joined the faculty at UMSL, I sent her a thank you note saying that I owe her a “notable paper or a well-trained student”. I’m getting close to paying my debt on both of those scores.
Ages ago, I used to play golf regularly, and a good teacher told me that “you can’t play this game with clenched fists”. Many people do science with clenched fists, especially at some of the places I’ve studied at, and this can be a very successful approach. I recall one of my classmates saying that at Harvard the secret is to be as aggressive and ambitious and competitive as everyone else, but to pretend like you’re not. Sensible advice. When I left, I veered in the opposite direction, but I find that the way I was running my lab still required clenched fists and tense abdominal muscles. One of the virtues of this illness is that it has forced me to turn over a great deal of control to my students, and to date they have done superbly. In the long run, learning to un-clench my fists regarding science could be a very healthy thing.