Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Mike's Tips for Recruitment Weekend

Thursday and Friday of this week are the department's recruiting weekend.  Having done these as a recruit, as well as the recruiter, I have a couple tips for recruiting:

1. Don't ask where else they are interviewing
This is my pet peeve.  I can understand how this shows interest in a recruit, which one should do, but it comes off as incredibly insecure.

I see the recruiting process as an extended first date.  The recruit and the department are trying to get a sense whether their interests are aligned, and whether they both feel they are of equivalent status.  Both parties are trying to impress each other, while making it look effortless.  And of course, as on many first dates, the recruit is visiting other departments and the department is interviewing other recruits.

So when someone asks, "Where else are you interviewing," I hear, "Are you seeing anyone else?"  Which is a good way to avoid a second date. If you are interested in a recruit's science, and want to get to know more about them, you can ask, "What type of science are you interested in?"  It doesn't matter what other departments they're visiting, because this one is the best.

2. Don't talk about science
I've been doing post-doc interviews lately, and most of the interviews are consumed with science, both mine and the lab I'm visiting.  It can be fun to show off my research, and most people are excited to talk about their own research.  After a few hours, though, it gets tiresome.  At the end of the day, I've been overloaded by new concepts, and I'm getting tired of going over my boilerplate.  Any conversational respite is appreciated.

I can only assume it's even worse for the recruits.  Their interviews are two days long, and instead of interviewing with one lab, they see four.  When they finally get around to talking to grad students at lunch or the after-party, they're usually exhausted.  So when you talk to them, ask them about sports, movies, or short track speed skating.  Anything but science.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Lab Fashion

Having been a scientist for going on six years now, I have little awareness of how outsiders view science, or scientists themselves.  The best glimpses I get are from movies and television, where scientists are dressed in white lab coats, and work in colorful rooms.  The truth, while not quite diametrically opposed, is much less sexy.

Almost no one in the lab actually wears lab coats.  In fact, my high school biology teacher once joked that if you ever see a lab wherein everyone is wearing lab coats and goggles, you should run because they are working with very dangerous things.  Typically, scientists dress like computer programmers, viz. jeans and a t-shirt.  If you are more senior, you might wear what my friend calls the "scientist's uniform" of khaki slacks and a blue button down.

In fact, the dress code of the lab is so casual that I am instantly suspicious of anyone who dresses too well.  When I see someone in a blazer, I wonder if they have a job interview.  Or someone wearing a white lab coat, makes me wonder why they are trying to appear to be working (lab coats are of course essential for many lab procedures, like dissections.  My rule of thumb is that you should never wear a lab coat without gloves).  My lab recently bought lab coats for a few people, and they now wear them when they are doing any work in the lab, not just the dangerous or dirty stuff.  It irks me.  To be fair, one's attitude can be changed by the clothes one wears, and I would endorse any action that makes one work more effectively.  I would need to see the data, though, that shows lab coats make them more effective.

Medical doctors are some of the worst offenders in terms of using the white coat as a status symbol.  For doctors, the coats are certainly necessary when working with patients that may bleed or drip muccus.  But the doctors often do not disrobe outside the office, and wear their coats in the cafeteria or on the way to their car. Part of being a doctor is certainly to make people as comfortable as possible, and wearing a lab coat may inspire confidence in patients.  Like scientists, though, when they are worn too often, I become suspicious that they are compensating. It doesn't seem very hygenic, either, to be wearing your dirty safety clothes in public, but then again, I'm not a doctor.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Big Picture

This past month, I was taking the medical school module on Brain and Behavior. The course is intended to provide medical students an introduction to neurology and neuroanatomy, and the department thought it would be a good idea for the graduate students to take the class. I don't completely disagree with the idea, although there is a large scope for improvement such that Neurobiology students learn skills and information that are useful and relevant, as opposed to facts and trivia that we will forget soon. One thing missing from the course, and consistently missing from a lot of advanced medical/scientific courses is an appreciation for the beauty of the cell/tissue/organ, etc...

I was originally interested in Biology because to me, the human body was an elegant structure, a few trillion cells, acting in concert, were necessary to accomplish most things we would think of as mundane. To accomplish this feat we call life, there need to be feedback loops, feed-forward loops, intracllular signaling cascades, cell-cell communication locally and systemically each of which is regulated and the regulation is regulated. All these processes need to communicate with one another with temporal and spatial specificity. As we discover more about the processes that allow us to perform the functions we can, I believe it is important to continually appreciate the delicateness and the elegance involved in the sustenance of life amid very narrow thermodynamic limits.

I have found that the med school course focused on details, without much appreciation for the bigger picture. For instance, I understand that somatic sensory information is "perceived" by 1st order neurons in the dorsal root ganglion, before proceeding upwards in the spinal cord through the dorsal columns, terminating on dorsal column nuclei, decassating and continuing upward through the medial lemniscal pathway, terminating in the thalamus where neurons send information to the cortex. However, this does not help me appreciate the fact that this entire process takes a few milliseconds, during which information from multiple neurons have been combined to determine the identity of the stimulus and the appropriate response to it.

In contrast, there are classes which elaborate on biological elegance. For instance, in the concepts II lecture we had this morning, Rich Mooney spent quite some time elaborating on the fact that the auditory system has to use action potentials, which are about 1ms in duration, to code for stimuli that are microseconds long, i.e. they are coding stimuli that are 1000 times faster than their theoretical limit. Rich went on to elaborate on the mechanisms and details about how the process might occur, but held the process and the mechanism with a sense of wonder which reminded me why I care so much.

When conveying information about a certain topic, I believe it is just as important to inspire wonder as it is to elaborate on the components and interactions that characterize the system. I feel that is what distinguishes a good lecturer from a bad one. One need to have great oratorical skills or a vast vocabulary, but one must have the child-like wonder, and be able to inspire that in the audience.