Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The scientist's Kobayashi Maru

"Prayer, Mr. Saavik. Thesis committees don't take prisoners."
Credit: unwinnable
I have recently been enthralled by Hope Jahren's "Lab Girl." Professor Jahren is a geobiologist at the University of Hawaii; she has written a blog for a long while, and recently published her book, which is mostly memoir, interspersed with comments about botany. She is an exceptional narrator - upon reading this sentence, I burst out loud in laughter and knowledge that I would never write so well: 
I have become proficient at producing a rare species of prose capable of distilling ten years of work by five people into six published pages, written in a language that very few people can read and that no one ever speaks. This writing relates the details of my work with the precision of a laser scalpel, but its streamlined beauty is a type of artifice, a size-zero mannequin designed to showcase the glory of a dress that would be much less perfect on any real person. 
 Readers of this blog will enjoy this sentence:
"You may have heard that America doesn't have enough scientists and is in danger of "falling behind" whatever that means) because of it. Tell this to an academic scientist and watch her laugh." 
The book is getting wide and deserved praise, so it is with some trepidation that I express my discomfort with this passage that I have excerpted. Preceding the passage, Professor Jahren relates the time that she went to Ireland, collected many samples at significant personal cost and then was forced to throw them away at the airport since she did not have the proper permits:
Bill would forever after refer to that trip as "the Wake," whereas I dubbed it "the Honeymoon," and we took to reenacting its climax at least once a year. Whenever we got a new recruit to the lab, his or her first task was to label empty vials, hundreds of them. We'd explain that this was a necessary preparation for a large-scale collection we had scheduled and give directions for a long and complicated alphanumeric code, rich with Greek letters and nonsequential numbers, to be inscribed on each vial in pen, along with the order of production.  
After a day of steady labor on the part of the newbie, we'd hold a summit and either Bill or I would play Good Cop and the other would play Bad Cop (we traded off). The meeting would start out with our asking the newbie how he or she had liked the task and whether this sort of work was tolerable. It would then slowly morph into a discussion of the upcoming sample collection and the rationale behind its purpose.  
Little by little, Bad Cop would become more and more pessimistic as to whether the proposed collection would test the hypothesis after all. Good Cop would resist this logic at first, urging Bad Cop to consider the fact that the newbie had put so many long hours into the preparation. Even so, Bad Cop just couldn't let go of the nagging realization that this approach wasn't going to yield an answer, and finally Good Cop had no recourse but to agree that starting over was as unavoidable as it was necessary. At this point, Bad Cop soberly gathered up the vials and dumped them en mass into a lab waste receptacle. The Cops exchanged a knowing look, and Bad Cop trudged off without satisfaction, leaving Good Cop to observe the newbie's reaction.  
Any sign that the newbie regarded his or her time as of any value whatsoever was a bad omen, and the loss of so many hours' work was a telling trial of this principle. As a corollary, any recognition of futility was perhaps worse. There are two ways to deal with a major setback: one is to pause, take a deep breath, clear your mind and go home, distract yourself for the evening, and come back fresh the next day to start over. The other is to immediately resubmerge, put your head under and dive to the bottom, work an hour longer than you did last night, and stay in the moment of what went wrong. While the first way is a good path toward adequacy, it is the second way that leads to important discoveries.  
One year I played Bad Cop but forgot my reading glasses and so returned early to the melee. Our newbie, named Josh, was busily digging his vials out of the refuse bin, separating each one carefully from the used gloves and other trash. I asked him what he was doing and he said, "I just feel bad that I wasted all these vials and stuff. I thought I could unscrew the caps and save them, and they could be extras or something." As he continued with his task, I caught Bill's eye and we smiled at each other, knowing that we'd identified yet another sure winner. 
I agree that science requires such dedication, and yes, while a trip home may attempt to preserve your sanity, facing your problems and fixing them right then and there will certainly lead to faster answers immediately. Having the fortitude to face such a failure and go right back to problem-solving is indeed the sign of a passionate scientist.

However, is there a point to such an artificial test of character? Are there other tests of character that don't involve wasting hours of mind-numbing work for an undergraduate? (Isn't there enough mind-numbing work already without coming up with a fake test?)

There is so much artificiality to job interviews and training scenarios that perhaps something like this is really not too far out of the norm. That said, if I were Josh and I found out this was a fake situation, I would be royally irritated.

Readers, what do you think? Is this indeed the ultimate test of character for a scientist? Do you believe in the no-win scenario? Are there better tests that are less artificial? 

39 comments:

  1. no no no no no. I've seen countless grad students working day and night and weekends, sinking deeper into sadness over both the lack of scientific progress and social isolation. At the same time, their mind was so overwhelmed and anxious that they couldn't take a step back, reconsider, and change the approach of their work, wasting months.

    On top of that there are many research areas, where you should be focused in the lab (toxic chemicals, high pressure, radiation). The emotional side of a setback such as described will cloud your focus, causing you to make potentially dangerous mistakes.

    So you take a step back, unwind and start fresh the next day. To me, that path would be the criterion for identifying a responsible grown-up.

    Of course, if you have freed yourself from emotion, and such an experience doesn't bother you, go ahead and work on. In my experience, there are plenty downsides to an automaton-like team member.

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    1. "So you take a step back, unwind and start fresh the next day. To me, that path would be the criterion for identifying a responsible grown-up."

      I think that's your mistake right there. They aren't looking for responsible grown-ups, they are looking for good worker bees.

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  2. "While the first way is a good path toward adequacy, it is the second way that leads to important discoveries."

    That's an ironic statement considering the setting of the first "eureka moment."

    Personally, I've had more insights in the shower than I have banging my head on my bench, but that's just me. I think Jahren is making a huge (and common) mistake in thinking that everyone should think like her. Different ≠ stupid.

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    1. "While the first way is a good path toward adequacy, it is the second way that leads to important discoveries"

      This claim is generated without any argument for its basis. Why, pray tell, would an exhausted mind fresh off a major failure be more "creative" than a well-rested, balanced, one? More likely, if you try to push through a major problem without a break, you will compound your mistake, or even surpass it.

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  3. The Iron ChemistMay 3, 2016 at 9:10 AM

    Of course, the elite student would have gone through and understood the purpose of the experiment before labeling any vials at all.

    It's a bit like that test they had for the samurai in "Seven Samurai." The good samurai enter the building but evade the attack. The best samurai realizes it's a trick and doesn't enter the building.

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    1. The Iron ChemistMay 4, 2016 at 4:18 PM

      By the way, I'm not arguing that this is a decent thing to do to your worker. Extremely wasteful both in terms of time and resources. I'm sure that her funding agency wouldn't like to hear that she purchased hundreds of vials just to throw them away. Further, pretty much any project will have this sort of situation come up naturally a couple of times; there's no need at all to provide additional set-backs.

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    2. "...leaving Good Cop to observe the newbie's reaction....I caught Bill's eye and we smiled at each other, knowing that we'd identified yet another ..." (sucker)

      This sort of situation will come up naturally but then, she wouldn't have the payoff of seeing the expression on this poor lab rat personally. That's where she and her husband really get their unseemly thrills. "We smiled."

      Yeah, poor job as PI, miserable failure as human being. No stars, would not read again.

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  4. I read "Lab Girl" a few weeks ago and really enjoyed the book, but I'm not a fan of staged tests. That section bothered me. There are more productive, real ways to see if someone has grit/perseverance or is entitled, and it usually becomes evident in the first few weeks in the lab. Heck - in my grad school group all the first years spent the first month or so doing a crash course in large scale organometallic synthesis; my first grad school prep was 50g of dineopentyl zinc - the grignard is notoriously finicky and the dineopentyl zinc had to be vacuum distilled. I didn't realize it at the time but it was a much better way to test lab skills, grit and sense of entittlement than any staged test. At the end of the month I had lots of reagents/catalysts, had figured out my way around the lab/department, and didn't feel like my advisor was going to pull random psychological tests on me.
    But maybe chemistry has more immediate challenges than paleobotany and fake tests are not necessary.

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  5. A couple of thoughts:
    1) If this happened to me, I would never trust the people who pulled that trick again. Fool me once, etc.
    2) I assume this is done to unpaid undergrads, or does their lab have so much money they can waste a day of pay/support pranking employees?
    At the very least they could find something menial but useful for students to do rather than playing power games with a junior group member.

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    1. I'm in agreement with every one of these points.

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  6. This is how supervillains are created.

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  7. "While the first way is a good path toward adequacy, it is the second way that leads to important discoveries."

    If I was training grad students, I don't think I'd expect academically-selected 21-year-olds to all have this level of insight. I'd think less of myself for not being willing to coach this.

    And if this is for undergrads, not grad students, then I think it's totally ridiculous.

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  8. It's hazing, pure and simple. I can't respect someone who thinks that's an appropriate way to train future scientists, no matter how well she writes.

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    1. More ironic that she has has been quite vocal against male professors that are romantically interested in female students. More serious than hazing, but a form of hazing nevertheless:

      http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/06/opinion/sunday/she-wanted-to-do-her-research-he-wanted-to-talk-feelings.html

      She's tenured, so any thing that could be construed as hypocrisy will not hurt her.

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  9. Shoe On The Other FootMay 3, 2016 at 1:15 PM

    "Professor Jahren relates the time that she went to Ireland, collected many samples at significant personal cost and then was forced to throw them away at the airport since she did not have the proper permits"

    To me, this seems like a completely different case than the vial-labeling situation. In one case, the primary researcher failed to obtain a simple permit and it led to disaster. In the other case, a new worker completes a menial task that was purposely assigned and set up to fail from the get go. I wonder what the outcome would have been had the roles been reversed; the new lab worker 'forgets' to obtain the appropriate permit for the Prof and her subsequent expensive sample collection trip is ruined. I doubt that the Prof would accept the following advice from the newbie: “Put your head under and dive to the bottom, work an hour longer. Its situations like these that lead to important discoveries”

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  10. The stories of (a) giving a new student a lengthy but pointless task to test for "grit", (b) spending a lot of time and money to collect samples in the field without first checking to see if they could actually be brought back to the lab, and (c) open disdain for those who take a step back to regroup after a major failure (instead of diving right back into the same presumably flawed process) -- these all paint a picture of someone hopelessly in love with their own ideas and their own way of doing things.

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  11. CJ - an off topic question. I'm wondering how common is it for PhD chemists to apply for BS/MS positions at companies today, considering how impacted the chemistry job market is right now. The data is hard to find, and I think a place to start could be an informal survey here; anecdotes are better than nothing!

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    1. It is probably pretty common to see PhD applications for BS/MS jobs, but at my large pharma they basically go in the trash

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    2. Quite common at my former employer: Ph.D. biochemist laid off from cancer institute, drove big trucks in the oilfield for while before moving to the lab for a chem tech/BS position; Ph.D. chemist with post-doc experience applying for chem tech positions (eventually got hired on as a researcher, almost made it through a year before oil crash/layoff). Comments from several lab managers that they were getting people ridiculously overqualified with advanced degrees and/or experience applying for entry-level tech positions.

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  12. Proof again that seemingly likable people can be horrendously poor supervisors. What a massive and embarrassing waste of time and resources, the worst part is that she is likely quite proud of it. No wonder the incidence of mental illness so high for young researchers.

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  13. I'd say it was an excellent test of character, actually. Hope failed it.

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  14. This is a terrible way to test the character of a student. Writing about it with (so it seems to me) obvious pride reflects poorly on Hope Jahren as a lab manager.

    In keeping with the Kobayashi Maru theme in the title, though, what would a James T. Kirk solution to this test be? What would Montgomery Scott do?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kobayashi_Maru

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    1. The Iron ChemistMay 4, 2016 at 4:11 PM

      Go to med school.

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    2. The purpose of the Kobayashi Maru is never clear from what I've seen of Star Trek. However, from Roddenberry's perspective, I can see it serving two purposes:

      1) It's an anecdote for establishing that Kirk's rebellious genius is legendary in his own time.

      2) It illustrates Roddenberry's own optimistic philosophy: There are never no-win propositions when human ingenuity is involved.

      The test here is doing something similar here (at a meta-level) except it's meant to elevate the test-giver...and fails miserably. And the philosophy it illustrates is the complete opposite of the Kobayashi Maru: The test-taker is "successful" only if he or she wastes time without questioning the system. Or in the exceptional case of Josh, he achieves legendary status by wasting even more time trying to save his boss a few pennies.

      I'd say tests like Jahren's never test anything useful...much like the Kobayashi Maru wouldn't tell much about the character of the Starfleet Academy cadets. It only serves a narrative purpose: It's a story Jahren likes to tell herself and others to highlight a peculiar set of values she holds.

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    3. OT, but Roddenberry had almost nothing to do with TWOK- The script was written by Nicholas Meyer and Harve Bennett.

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  15. Hope Jahren is giving kids the impression that the way to a PhD is to grit your teeth through 5-6 years of unpleasantness, and I damn near became a Jason Altom trying to do that. The hazing-like atmosphere of grad school is why I stayed in for far too long after I should have quit - I was under the impression that it's like boot camp, where there's a reward at the end if you can grit your teeth through the pain.

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  16. That woman mistreats her undergrads, yet her shtick is Women in Academia (and how poorly the awful men treat them). How do you manage to square that up, except with a huge dose of compartmentalization and no introspection at all. And just how conceited do you have to be to be to name your blog "Hope Jahren sure can write"?

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    1. It's amazing how well academics can compartmentalize. They're the most vocally left-wing people you'll ever meet at a cocktail party, but they're very good at turning off their beliefs when it comes to sexist treatment of female scientists, abuse of grad student quasi-employees, or quietly firing support staff like cafeteria workers and janitors and replacing them with low-paid outside contractors.

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    2. Well, just as long its not their salary being affected, and everything is fine, right?

      I find most people are unwilling to try fix bad, unfair situations because 1.) their too busy and 2.) their salary is not affected.

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    3. I agree that it is a crappy thing to do to students, but it doesn't mean that her efforts to help women in science are invalid. We need to get away from the mindset that we need perfect women role models and anything less just doesn't count. She's putting herself out there and that is having an impact on the large scale. I do the best I can to be a good advisor to my students of both genders and an advocate for women in science, but what I do is on a local level.

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    4. NMH - I'm talking about perpetrating abuse and sexism, in addition to standing idly by while colleagues do it. As for the comment about outsourcing support staff, most of those Provosts, Chancellors, Deans, etc started their careers as professors and later moved into administration, and would be horrified if a big, mean corporation did the exact same thing.

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  17. Good thing I don't have to do this sort of thing in chemistry. I just teach them how to run a column to the best of my ability. It's guaranteed it will result in a wasted day's work in the first few weeks. Why, just two days ago I ran two columns on my product and failed to separate it, which made me feel like garbage because I separated harder stuff before and this time I took shortcuts... What made me feel like an even bigger piece of human garbage was that between the two columns I played a recent RPG download from Steam for three hours. At least the day wasn't a complete waste since I managed to make it out of the first dungeon.

    It's awesome how many of the comments are lashing out at her though. Definitely a bit of 'high on their own moral outrage' quality there. Sure I don't agree with her methods, but I'm not going to get bent out of shape for her wasting a day of her employee's time on it. And I haven't even read the book. Truly this shows that even scientists can get high on bad brain patterns that they lock onto a single passage in a book they haven't read to bash someone just so they can feel more righteous.

    www.davidbrin.com/addiction.html

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  18. Who's paying for all of those wasted vials and this meaningless hazing? Does that come from a grant?

    It might seem like a trivial thing, but, good grief, it's ridiculous. When I was a n00b grad student this would have terribly confused me. If I was to go into that lab now, with my years of experience having worked with both awesome and awful faculty, I'd have looked them in the eye and told them to stuff it and get over themselves.

    How exactly does this stupidity contribute towards the mission of the lab, the college, and the university? How does it contribute towards the objectives and aims of whomever pays for their research?

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  19. When I was in grad school 25 years ago, I washed out vials and reused them, over and over again. And our institute was fairly well-funded.

    I agree, this is a waste of time for the undergrad, and a waste of money. It makes me wonder if Jahren was hazed in a similar way when she started doing research.

    I do want to add that her shining a light on sexual harassment in research labs is on the mark.

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    1. A female scientist is literally hazing male students to make them drop out of science. Is that the kind of sexual harassment in labs she "shines a light" on?

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    2. From the above passage in the book:
      "Whenever we got a new recruit to the lab, his or her first task was to label empty vials, hundreds of them."

      This pointless task is foisted on all the undergrads, male or female. The passage goes on to describe one male undergrad who met Jahren's exacting standards, standards which I think prove nothing. It's equal opportunity uselessness.

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    3. @Anon 8:13PM: You're probably right, but I was also thinking how this would look for a male professor to brag about frustrating (an example) female student(s). Twitter would be alight!

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  20. Hmmmm, I was considering reading that book after all the hype - this story really turns me off! Jeez what an idiotic 'test', not to mention the extrapolation and (over)interpretation into scientific 'character'. One can only hope that Dr.Jahren is a wee bit more careful in the analysis of her data. And BTW, anyone who has traveled internationally even once ought to know that carrying biological / agricultural materials (food, plants, fruit) across borders is often a big no-no, for obvious reasons. Pretty silly to not have investigated permits before the enthusiastic collection effort. But then, I haven't read the book, perhaps there's more to the story that explains the lapse.

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    1. Yeah, I think there's a variety of different ways that it was not a "normal" trip.

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