Monday, December 14, 2009

Change in Perspective..

Before this job, I worked in the same department for a different researcher.  

He was not an easy man to work for.  He is incredibly intelligent, and equally demanding.  I was thrown into the deep end, immediately doing some fairly difficult animal work (when I'd never even gone near a mouse before) alongside my coworker, who'd been doing it for 3 years, oh, and was one of my best friends.  Demoralising, to say the least.

Within three months, our friendship was fractured (it's since recovered, for the most part) and I would start each morning with a round of violent dry retching. He was never abusive.  He was just so mercurial, changing his mind at the last second (case in point, when we trialled a new technique he made me ensure that both the head of the animal ethics committee and himself could be there to watch me. Three days later, when I was still trying to finagle the schedules of two very busy people, he asked me why I was expecting him to attend. Uh, because you ordered it?) .

And he was intense. The man was so intense you'd feel him coming before you saw him. I'd be buried knuckles deep in a mouse, calmly doing my thing, when all the hairs on the back of my neck would stand up. Then he'd be standing behind me, demonstrating a complete lack of the concept of personal space, and bang! my fingers would turn into thumbs.

He scared the hell out of me, and I was convinced he thought I was a useless skidmark in the lab. He deliberately kept a huge distance between himself and his employees/students, something he openly believed was the right way to run a lab. To be fair, this technique worked - the lab was certainly collegial.  The 'underlings' banded together in mutual fear/hatred of him.  This was what he wanted. 

Despite all that, I do respect and admire him.  And, if I'm honest, he made me a better scientist.  But it's taken me a very long time to stop feeling like a failure.  I still haven't got all my confidence back.

Today I learnt that, the year I was there, he had a, well, let's call it a mild nervous breakdown.  Nobody knew this, not even my coworker/best friend, who was about as close to him as it was possible to be.  I knew he and his wife had divorced and his attempt at venture capitalism was failing (well, I certainly knew it by the end of the year, when I lost my job), but, with no previous experience of the man, I had no idea if his behaviour was out of character.   Turns out, it was, and the year I was there was when he was at his worst.

I've been thinking about it ever since I found out.  It's a little shameful to realise I took his behaviour personally, when, actually, it had nothing to do with me at all.  Okay, he went to enormous effort to hide his problems, and it's hard NOT to take it personally when someone's looking at you like you just took a steaming dump on their desk.   But still, I'm a bit ashamed of myself.  

And, selfishly, relieved.  Maybe that year wasn't the disaster I thought it was. 

Saturday, December 12, 2009

CBRII - Book 6: The Lucy Family Alphabet by Judith Lucy

Judith Lucy is a well-known Australian comedian.  Her humour is self depreciating and dry, in the same way desert sand that's been left in a dessicator for three weeks is dry.  This is a woman who's most famous tour was about being sacked as a radio host, called 'I failed'.

Like most comedians, her family has provided much of her material.  The Lucy Family Alphabet is, in many ways, the work of a woman trying to come to terms with having two very complex parents.  Who, actually weren't her parents at all, which she was told when she was 25.  The book is also about the fallout of that discovery, and meeting her birth mother.

She uses a set-up where the chapters begin with a letter of the alphabet (eg A is for adoption), followed by a few pages of explanation, to tell the many smaller stories that make up her history.  There were a few times I longed for a flowchart of the order of major events with all the chapters slotted into their proper place in that chain of events, but for the most part, I really liked the format.  Judith has a gift with words that takes a lot of the sting out of the tales.  I often laughed out loud, even when I was cringing.  One chapter had me howling, but that's probably because my sense of humour is ten years old and thinks small mad dogs that aim directly for the testicles of larger dogs is the nadir of funny.

I think a lot of people with 'complicated' families will relate, if not to the experiences, then to the tone of the book.  The anger, and the love.  The pity and the regrets.  Judith's mother is probably the most interesting person.   She was a very intelligent woman, but so desperate for the attention of an indifferent husband that she ended up sabotaging any hope of a comfortable relationship with him.  There's also a lot of truth in the bond between Judith and her older brother Niall.  He's such a sweet, protective presence throughout the book, even though he's as damaged as she is.

This is a fantastic book.  

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Memories, like the cesspool of my heart.

Our climate control has lost its marbles.

One of our labs is 18C, the other (which is located exactly opposite) is 24C. Our office is currently a balmy 27C, the corridor connected to it is 21C. A couple of hours ago, I stood with one leg in the office and the other in the corridor and my body got very confused. Hell, my body's getting confused just walking around. Certain parts of me are are going up and down like a kid on trampoline.

It's strange how it's affecting us in the office. Headaches, nausea, exhaustion. Three went home early yesterday, one couldn't come in at all today. I'd study the phenomenon, but living through it is enough. Really. Somebody fix this now? Please?

To distract me, I searched through the files on my eeepc during lunch. In my current state, a file named 'killmenow.doc' is sure to get my attention. It was a diary entry, from (about) December 20 last year. See, every now and then, I get the urge to write a journal. It usually last a week, at most. Often, it's just a single entry. I've got dozens of notebooks with two pages of whinging, and that's it. Switching to computers has probably saved at least half a rainforest.

I decided to share. I’ve changed it a little for the sake of posting, adding explanations and stuff, but otherwise, everything is exactly as it was. As a reminder that my gut may be rioting and I may have just high-beamed the Head of the department, but I've survived worse.


It’s Saturday night. I’ve worked 13 days straight, never less than 10 hours a day. It’s Christmas day on Thursday, and I’ve only bought a quarter of the presents. ITGeek’s family will be down on Tuesday, and the house looks like a factory after a particularly violent rave party that ended with a swarm of ferrets. Usually, I don’t give a fuck about the state of the house, as long as I can still find the cat, but it’s his ENTIRE family, and since the move has been put back AGAIN, I’ve gotten a little depressed about all the boxes. Morgan, is, of course, perfectly fine with this new arrangement, especially the part where he can climb up the boxes to the curtain rod and amble along it, until he falls off and hangs there, yowling in fifteen octaves, until I rescue him. I thought cats were supposed to be graceful and shit. Just my luck to get the munted one.

Oh yeah, work. I’m beyond tired. This has been a bitch of a study. The mice are bl/6 (black 6) and they are angry, angry little mice. Our usual breed are balb/c, which look like the traditional white lab mice and act like stoned Buddhists. If I’m honest, I kinda hope that, should reincarnation be in my future and I come back as a lab mouse, I’m a bl/6. I respect their rage, I’m just not a fan of being on the receiving end of it. So far, I’ve been bitten three times, which wouldn’t suck so much if two of the bites hadn’t been in the same damn place. Of course, they’re also in the worst place to be bitten – the upper knuckle of my index finger. This is an area where the skin is usually stretched over the bone, so when those tiny little teeth dig in, they start mining for calcium.

These aren’t just any bl/6 mice either. They’re knock-outs (genetically engineered so a gene or two in their DNA has been removed, or ‘knocked out’, which very slightly changes how they function. It’s a good way to figure out what the protein that gene encodes actually does in the body). They were engineered overseas, then sent to us. I think they were about 6 weeks old when that process started. When they got to us, they were 8 months old. Ah, bureaucracy. They weigh, on average, 33g. The ones we usually deal with are around the 22g mark. 10g may not seem like much, except when it’s all muscle and rage and launching itself at your face, teeth-first.

Half of them are male, too. You can keep a bunch of 8 week old males in the same cage without too much trouble. Female mice hang together happily forever, the worst they’ll do is groom each other bald. 8 month old males will eat each other’s faces off. Literally (guess what I found three days after they arrived? Faceless mouse corpse. Yummy). Obviously, this is something we watch for, but older mice that previously were fine with each other may randomly decide to brawl, and they’re most likely to do that at night. I just don’t love this job enough to be here at 2am to keep an eye on the wildlife. Hell, times like this, I barely love the job enough to be here at 2pm.

At least we appear to have results. That’s always heartening. Worst day ever was a 16 hour cull day, also on Saturday, for a 4 month smoke study. That was the day I started ranting about goats planning to take over the world. At the end of that awful day, the cells from the lung lavage were counted, a good indication of how well the study went. There was no difference between the mice that had been smoked, and the mice that hadn’t. So we’d worked our arses off for 4 months, had done one hell of a cull day, and we went home, knowing that we were only halfway through, and the study was a bust.

So it’s worked, even if it’s nearly killed us in the process. Can I just say, in passing, that, should you ever need to send something even remotely important, I would not recommend FedEx. They are as pleasant to deal with as enormous genetically engineered, angry mice. The whole reason this study has been so demanding is because the previous study went over. This is because we had to wait for the company who ordered the study to send us their compound, and they sent it via FedEx. Who, despite being a courier company, somehow didn’t know that everything sent between countries requires a commercial invoice. This isn’t a complicated document – it’s a list of what you’re sending, on company letterhead. Our shipment didn’t have one, so naturally, customs didn’t let it through.
The first time my co-worker rang, asking where the shipment was, they claimed to have contacted our clients about the invoice. When she rang again the next day, they admitted they’d ‘made a note to call the company’. But hadn’t actually made the call. By this time, the package had been sitting in customs for about three days. God only knows when they were planning to actually make that call. Sometime next year, I imagine. They also don’t provide or top up the levels of dry ice, a bit of a problem when everything you’re sending has to be kept below -20C. I hope every one of those incompetent pieces of walking excrement gets syphilis for Christmas.

The file ended there. Possibly because I passed out from a combination of rage and exhaustion. If you’re interested, I got all the presents I needed and even cleaned up the place before the ITGeek’s family arrived. I have always been pretty good at last-minute cramming. The cat eventually learnt to just leave the curtain rod alone. A water pistol may have been involved in that education.

The study, on the other hand, didn’t go so well. The cells in the lungs increased as a result of smoking, which meant it worked, but there wasn’t any difference between the knockouts and the wild-types. Which, as far as the company was concerned, meant it didn’t work. And there were further, hellish misadventures with courier companies. Although we sent the samples via the best courier we’ve got (World courier, and they’re awesome), they apparently arrived in two separate shipments (we sent them in one) and the contents of one was leaking everywhere. We were told this on a morning we had to start at 6am. I then spread the joy around by calling the courier company, expecting to get a voice mail, but getting a salesperson instead. Who I then assumed must be on the night shift, so I unleashed a torrent that could basically be summed up as ‘WTF and you DID send our stuff to the dangerous goods officer to pack properly, like you said you would, right? You didn’t send highly flammable liquid on a plane in an old cardboard box I swiped from the store room, did you, please? I signed the dangerous goods document, I’m liable for that, pleaseohplease?’ After five minutes, the salesperson managed to interrupt the panic babble and I realised my call had diverted to her and she was actually at home. In bed. I was all ‘Oh shit, sorry! But, uh, I really need to know what’s happened here,’ and she was all ‘You’re absolutely right, and I’ll get on it as soon as I wipe the sleep from my eyes.’ It’s been months since that awful day and we still don’t know what went wrong. Far as we can tell, the couriers did everything right, but the company has gone all fourteen year old girl and won’t talk to us anymore, so for all we know, the courier company are lying and they played football with the damn thing.