Archive for July, 2012

So I’m at my bench today, preparing to apply an electric field to a gel-membrane sandwich with high hopes that the proteins in said gel will nestle into a nook within a nitrocellulose membrane, when I’m approached by what can only be described as the “safety gestapo”:

“Excuse me, I see you are going with the sunglasses look with the safety specs on your head, why aren’t you wearing them?”

I glance at my arm to make sure I’m not wearing a yellow star of David and reply: “Because I’m not working with anything dangerous that requires them”.

Feigning interest one fellow asks: “Oh, is that so…so what is it that you are working with?”

Suppressing an eye roll: “I’m doing a Western blot, so SDS, Tris, some lysate….listen, if I’m going to be pH’ing or working with something dangerous, I’ll put on my specs, otherwise I find them uncomfortable and unnecessary” as I point to the normal glasses I’m already wearing, indicating that the standard issue specs that go over them are difficult to see through and exceedingly bulky.

In response: “Hmmm, well you know that the University will purchase you a pair of prescription safety specs that you could wear. I also found this to be quite useful for me in those instances that I forgot my glasses, it was nice to have an extra pair around” and then he smugly adds “that is before I got laser eye surgery and could wear these specs”.

“Well” I sigh “I pay a lot of money for the glasses I currently have, and extra to get high index lenses, anti-reflection coating and a non-scratch coating so that they are comfortable to wear throughout the day. When you work 10-12 hours in the lab the last thing you want to be concerned with is the comfort of your eye wear”

“I see” the fellow responds, then another guy picks up a squirt bottle on my bench and waves it menacingly in front of me and say “but what about this spray bottle of 70% ethanol, that’s quite dangerous, you wouldn’t want to get that in your eyes”

Starting to get a bit annoyed with what is apparently the second coming of the Spanish Inquisition that seems to be unfolding, I sardonically state “Yes, well, you can get something just as potent down at the pub, should I wear safety specs next time I head to the pub too? There would probably be drunk people there so it would be more dangerous” then, sensing a potential advantage I add: “You know you cannot prevent every accident that could happen, are you going to require me to be wrapped in bubble wrap for my walk to the train when I leave too?”

Apparently having prepared for such a response, the fellow adds: “well, to us, just one accident is one accident too many”

To which I respond: “well I’ve been working in labs for 7-8 years now, and I haven’t heard of anyone squirting something overly dangerous in their eyes. If you know what you’re working with and know what you’re doing, then you put them on when necessary. Otherwise, there is really no point”

Then we continue on going back and forth about how the danger isn’t necessarily what I’m doing, but what others might be doing, to which I respond that others are doing experiments that use many of the same reagents that I typically use. I ask them to take note of the fume hood, place to pH, we’re all good! So wtf?!

Then one of the chaps decides to take a different tack: “Well, you postdocs set an example for the undergraduates and post-graduate students. I asked one of them why they weren’t wearing safety specs and they replied that it was because no one else around them was”*

Now this is when I had to be careful and not let my “Americanism” get a hold of me, as these guys were really pissing me off. When this happens, sometimes I have intolerant thoughts; Despite my patience being pushed to its limit I only let my libertarian side out a bit and reply “well there’s something to be said for personal responsibility. One should take responsibility for one’s own personal safety and have some basic knowledge about what what they are working with and how dangerous it might be”.

So we continued the 3 v 1 a little on this and some other points for about THIRTY FUCKING MINUTES at which time I finally say: “listen, maybe you guys need to go talk to someone else about this and have a discussion with them, I’ve got work to do” as I stare longingly at my gels as they cry for my attention, and I look at the clock and think ‘Fuck, now I’m never going to catch the train in time to eat dinner with the wife tonight’

The gestapo continued raising hell throughout the lab, harassing Jew and gentile alike about their proclivity towards wearing safety specs…once they left I tore off my lab coat (they make us wear those all the time too) and yelled “give me liberty or give me death!” and spent the rest of the afternoon rebelling against unjust tyranny…


*In retrospect, this was actually a pretty decent point. Nonetheless…

**I’m actually not this overly antagonistic towards the British. But I would be lying if I said that these sorts of thoughts don’t float through my head every once in awhile; more so when I’m frustrated with cultural differences.


A CV Quandry – posters

Posted: July 19, 2012 in Uncategorized

I’m looking to update my CV for the first time in about a year and a half, as I’m entering the last 16 months of my contract here in the UK and need to start gearing up for a stateside job search. Whilst I was looking it over (and it’s a damn fine looking CV may I say! it’s good to have a wife who is a graphic designer! But I don’t know how to update it since she made it in Adobe InDesign :/) I was thinking about the utility of having the “Poster Presentation” section. It’s quite long, like 2-3 pages worth, but does anyone really give a rats ass? 

So any thoughts out there in the world wide web? Is a long poster section just a bunch of “fluff” that is seen as padding that makes it look like one is trying too hard? Or is it important to demonstrate that one likes to get out there and promote your shitte? Or does it not really matter because all people look at on a CV is pedigree, publications and the pedigree of the publications and I could put a naked picture of Margaret Thatcher on there and they wouldn’t notice?

Potholing? Seriously??

Posted: July 11, 2012 in Life in the UK

So apparently the British term for spelunking is potholing….as in pot-hole-ing. i.e, exploring potholes. Like those things that make your car go bump-bump-bump, but are not your hydraulics….



“The better Andy Murray gets, the more English he becomes” – my wife’s coworker.


Of course, for those of you that don’ t know, Murray (the first British tennis player to make the Wimbeldon Finals since 1938) is actually Scottish, not English. I’m sure the Scots are loving this one….

It’s nice to see an article about the plight of biomedical sciences in a major news outlet….just wish it was a little more cheery! I’m amazed there are 1300 plus comments on this!

The way I read this is: NIH, aided and abetted by naive academics, enticed thousands of bright young American’s into a hopeless career path.  Yea, let’s increase the supply of scientists but do nothing to increase the demand. Oh yea, and don’t forget to drill it into their heads that anything less than an Academic position is failure. That will keep them in bondage longer.

Oye…I realize this is a very cynical interpretation…but maybe I’m slowly starting to wake up from the academic science induced coma that graduate school put me in…not sure yet…stay tuned!

In addition to differences in the time it typically takes to complete a PhD in the US and UK (as discussed here) there also appear to be some important differences with respect to funding. In many cases (although not all) when you apply to obtain a PhD in the UK you actually apply to do a “studentship” with a specific PI. In other words, a PI gets a grant that includes funding for a PhD student, and they then advertise that they have a position available for which they conduct interviews. The department only seems to be tangentially involved. It seems to be much more like applying for a job than applying to PhD programs in the US where you typically apply to a department and also perhaps to work with a specific PI.

This being said, there is some variability here depending on where funding comes from. From what I’ve heard there are some places in the UK that may offer support via the department or institution. However, I suspect this is more the exception than the rule (please do leave a comment if you know otherwise! These posts seem to be the most popular of mine thus far and I’m sure there are numerous future PhD students that would appreciate as much insight as possible). In the US there seems to be a lot more potential for departmental support, particularly given that graduate students are usually requested to be teaching and/or research assistants whilst in graduate school in return for support.

There are two significant drawbacks that I can see for the UK PhD funding system as I understand it: 1) Because funding is typically tied so tightly to an individual investigator, it appears almost impossible to switch labs at some point during the PhD program. If your funding comes from either a self-obtained grant/fellowship or the department, you may have more flexibility in case you find yourself in a bad situation. 2) You may not get paid a stipend whilst you are writing up your dissertation/thesis/viva in the UK. In many cases the PIs request/require that you work in the lab until funding runs out, but this gives you scant time to do all the necessary writing. Thus, you may very well spend several months living off savings or working another menial job to support yourself  while you finish your writing. While this does not always appear to be the case, it’s worth having a conversation with your PI and/or other members of the lab about this before embarking on a PhD. Needless to say, I find this practice to be extraordinarily unfair to the student.

With respect to graduate student support in the US, I think the biggest concern is that a considerable amount of time can be taken from classes/research by being a teaching and/or research assistant. This can significantly hamper progress towards getting up and running in a lab, particularly right at the beginning of the program and can significantly increase the time it takes to get the PhD. Other than that, knowing that there may be multiple sources of support can lend some marginal sense of security that is otherwise lacking in the rat race quest for enlightenment that is the pursuit of a PhD.

As far as the amount of compensation is concerned, it appears to be fairly equal in the US and UK. Your stipend is likely to be paltry either way. The biggest issue with compensation in the UK is if you are doing your PhD in London. London is a very expensive city, and although most schools appear to offer a sort of “London allowance” it is probably quite difficult to live comfortably on the stipend alone.

For anyone considering embarking on the road to a PhD at a particular institution or with a PI, the best advice I can offer is ASK A LOT OF QUESTIONS. Particularly about the pragmatic details as there is a lot of variability out there. You want to remove the blinders of undergraduate ignorance as best you can and delve into the real world of research with your eyes wide open.