Friday, August 8, 2014

Cursed labs?

Via Medium, the story of a U.S. Navy vessel, USS Cowpens, which seems to have suffered a number of unfortunate incidents, including:
  • Two accidents that resulted in the deaths of sailors
  • One captain who ruled the ship with an iron fist, including having sailors walk the captain's dog
  • One captain who was relieved for adultery with another officer's spouse
  • The latest: a captain who fell ill in the middle of a deployment, handed over their duties to an inexperienced executive officer and then holed up in the captain's quarters for 3 months
The article mentions the naval tradition of the "happy ship" and the "unhappy ship" with a passage taken from from one of Patrick O'Brian's novels of the Royal Navy. It concludes that the Cowpens seems to be cursed, which is a bit of traditional naval superstition. Not sure I buy that, but I can imagine the feelings from where it might come from, i.e. trusting your life to an incredibly complex set of human/machine interactions and also thousands of metric tons of steel.

I definitely think there are happy labs and unhappy labs -- just like a naval vessel, much of this emotional state comes from the boss of the lab, be they an academic PI or an industrial group leader. I think a good leader can take their team through tough times and have them feel like they've accomplished something significant; a bad leader can make their team feel like they're incompetent and barely hanging on. There's not much physical infrastructure to rely on, so I don't think that scientists put much emotional stock in them. 

I don't think there are such things as 'cursed labs'*, but I'd be willing to listen to such stories. Readers? 

*Cursed instruments, though? I swear I've seen possessed balances. 

14 comments:

  1. Well, there are labs that are cursed with horrible advisors, I was in one as a post-doc. Basically, my advisor wasn't an alcoholic, but he acted like one--- gross incompetence in a lot of areas. Plus he fired a lot of people if you couldn't fake that you were happy there.

    Ironically, he is probably the most successful person I have ever worked for--based on his publication record, probably should be a NAS member.

    How did he manage this? First, he made an outstanding first impression--he looks and talks like you would expect a gentile professor to act. Second, he was in a great school-will funded R1 state university. For these reasons, he got great people to work for him. They signed one before they know the full truth they found themselves in.

    I guess what I learned here is that if you really want to find out about a particular lab culture it's not good enough to talk with the advisor and the students there in the context of the lab...you pretty much have to get drunk with the students in a bar to get the truth.

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  2. Wow, that sounds like my PhD advisor as well, except I would say he was an alcoholic. Sadly I think people like that are not uncommon in academia. Anything flies once you get tenure, and I think being a top tier professor can be a lonely station in life, so often people do turn to strange ways of comforting themselves.

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  3. I am not sure I would generally associate a bad PI or boss as being an actual curse because there is more direct awareness of the cause and feel to be a curse it has to have substantial irrational and unexplainable elements.

    That said I too have wondered seriously about Instrument possession on a few occasions where hit high untraceable irreproducibility or frequent maintenance/break down issues (HPLCs and MSs in particular seemed to dislike me). Likewise a couple projects I have been on have contemplated submitting budget requests for consulting services by either a Witch Doctor or Exorcist Priest after enduring unrelenting runs of new unexpected problems (plus considered adding "qualified as Fire Fighter" on my CV). Additionally I am convinced my daughter carries a Red Light Curse as whenever she is in the front passenger seat the number of stops required is disproportionally large relative to driving alone or with other family members.

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  4. I don't know if this counts for a cursed lab, but a colleagues worked in a synthetic group in Sweden where an unhappy grad student committed a suicide - by hanging himself from overhead water pipe very late at night - and he wasn't discovered until the next morning. He did it just before a "bring your children to work" event organized by the school, so one happy group of children and spouses walked into the lab and saw him hanging right in between the benches... The little kiddos were told it was a prank, but the spouses got rankled. Needless to say, it did not create a good working environment in that research group.

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    1. WOW. That is one disturbing story.

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    2. What was disturbing was the two kiddies pulling on his legs...

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  5. I always am nervous with my first reaction in a new hood. I've had unlucky hoods and normal hoods. My current hood is ok. I brought up some starting material I had experience with in order to set the tone of the hood.

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  6. Empty labs are spooky. I helped close down a large research site. One day there was perhaps 2-3 people in the whole complex. I was downright scared even though I was in my own (then almost empty) lab.

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  7. When I worked in a lab of the broad sort NMH is describing, one night I was alone running a column in the wee small hours. Had some music on quietly, when suddenly I hear a scream! I'm a little freaked out as 1. I thought I was the only one there, and 2. uh oh, what sort of chemical accident has just happened? Close off the column and go over to the source of the scream...

    And there is the little cleaning lady, very young and short in stature. Apparently she had walked into the dark lab and started doing her job, when suddenly she looked up and was confronted with the pale face of my advisor on the dark background on one of our recruiting posters, like a ghost in the night.

    Truly, a terrifying sight for anyone.

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    1. reminds me: Late, late night, a janitor flips the switch in men's room to turn the lights off. There is a horrible, savage scream from one of the stalls. The terrified janitor instantly turns the light back on. A voice from the stalls is apologizing: "Sorry, I thought my eyeballs just popped out"

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  8. My first PhD advisor's lab had a cursed desk. All the grad students (I think 4 or 5 in a row) that worked in there wound up leaving the lab in some way or another without graduating. I think after the last one, he just started putting undergrads and visiting students in that desk. Come to think of it... it was the closest desk to his office, which could explain a lot.

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  9. There is a lab here that you might say is cursed based on the number of serious accidents but, honestly, they just don't give a shit about safety. People have been lit on fire, had explosions on the rotovap and chemical burns and still it's A-OK to wear shorts and sandals w/o labcoat...

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    1. In fact, the manner that one moron lit himself on fire was by withdrawing by syringe, using both hands, a large volume of BuLi from a bottle that he was holding between his legs (while wearing shorts, no less). Repercussions? None.

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  10. So now you know..

    ----
    The Real Reason USS Cowpens’ Commanding Officer Was Fired (http://www.kpbs.org/news/2014/aug/07/why-uss-cowpens-co-gombert-savage-fired/)


    During the recent deployment of the San Diego-based USS Cowpens, commanding officer Capt. Greg Gombert ensconced himself in his cabin for several weeks after becoming ill, putting a female officer in charge with whom Gombert had an “unduly familiar relationship," according to a report obtained by the Navy Times. The woman, Lt. Cmdr. Destiny Savage, became the "acting commanding officer:" Savage, a junior officer who was not fully qualified to be a permanent XO, even led at least two replenishments at sea, where the cruiser took on fuel from an oiler as little as 150 feet away in heavy seas, while the captain was in his cabin, according to the Navy’s investigation and interviews with current and former crew members.U-T San Diego reports the Navy's investigation found Gombert's relationship with Savage took a seemingly romantic turn in December:

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