Thursday, 30 January 2014

Nobody died but . . .

I've made a point in The Blob to try to redress the gender imbalance by taking the time to salute Women in Science.  And why not? I like women, some of my best friends are women, and some of my best friends are scientists, so I like writing about the successes of women in science.  I don't like writing about the abuse of women.  It makes me feel slightly queasy while simultaneously getting me enraged.  But sometimes you have to seize the shitty end of the stick and brandish it about; even though it smells bad and soils your hand.  I was in the pub the other day and I started a dialogue with an old friend of mine who has many intellectual accomplishments, a passionate engagement with science, a pragmatic (not quite cynical, he's too nice) understanding of the process of science, and a superlative ability to craft his research into words that get published in the journals Nature and Science (than which there is no higher achievement for ordinary sub-Nobel scientists).  These positive attributes have given him the trappings of success - a Professorship, a Fellowship, interviews in the Irish and the New York Times.  He's a little too young for a deluge of honorary degrees and his Fellowship doesn't come with a Ring.

We were chatting about how his success had been propelled up the slope of Mount Bloodihard by the harnessed energy of graduate students and young post-doctoral researchers to whom he has given a project and a stipend.  I talked before about how this evidence of a generous hand comes with daunting responsibilities. When your young proteges are in the Slough of Despond, it's at least partly your fault and more than partly your job to fish them out, even if it means getting wet to the waist yourself.  My pal has depths of kindness, so he can find it in himself to do this, even if it means a weekend of sleepless nights before the necessary "come up to the headmaster's study" talk. I took, and take, my hat off to him because I am useless at that sort of thing. I've never had a graduate student to myself because I desperately fear taking responsibility for another person's life and happiness; when it's clear that I can barely manage to take charge of my own.

Then our talk took a turn from a benign slightly self-congratulatory chat into a wider consideration of how success is achieved on the back of graduate students.  Our phrasing grew a little more elliptical and allusive at this point and neither of us mentioned any names or departments or Institutions; almost in the superstitious sense of "don't mention the devil lest he appear".  We both know a chap who has been equally successful in the pursuit of science as my pal, and far more successful than me. But this man has not been kind: in particular he has not been kind to young women. Conscientious  Principal Investigators (PIs) will have regular meetings with their team - both en masse in weekly Lab Meetings and 1-to-1.  It seemed all too frequent that the young women who went in for a talk with that boss, came out in tears.  I've been bemused and distressed to have a young woman burst into tears while talking to me on more than one occasion: that's part of the reason why I've shirked the responsibility of mentoring younger people.  But the chap of whom we treat, seems to make a habit of it "To lose one parent, Mr Worthing  . . ," It's almost as if a meeting hasn't been a success until the woman has been reduced to tears.  Now that's not right.  That is an abuse of power and not something that a gentleman should do.

But what have this fellow's colleagues done about it?  To a close approximation the answer is . . . nothing. It's much easier to know what is the right thing to do when you're not in the firing line.  It's easy, for example, to condemn those who convicted and punished Alan Turing.  The relationship between graduate student and PI can be intense, it is complicated by financial dependency, by investment of time and energy to the project, by the entanglement of work and social life, by ambition on both sides, by needing a reference for future employment, by ignorance of what the norms are.  This last is particularly asymmetrical - you're only ever a graduate student once but your PI has probably supervised several of them.  Actually I know several cases where graduate students have changed supervisors in mid-stream - and not always achieved greater happiness thereby.  To act in defense of an adult, some sort of a complaint has to be made, otherwise you risk being, or perceived as being, an officious busy-body. Then there needs to be some assurance that if you act, the complainant will go the full, hard, emotionally draining and potentially damaging course with you.  This is not unique to this one man or this one department.  Other places have recognised the universality of this and similar problems by implementing a mentoring system.  There every student is assigned to another faculty member, who is nothing to do with the project, but who will act as the youngster's mentor.  That's far from a complete solution to all problems in graduate school but at least it separates the issue of dependency from regular symmetrical inter-personal difficulty.  Yesterday, I reflected that some of these same colleagues were in place in 1998 when Carleton Gajdusek was eased out of our lives with tongs.  It's much easier to condemn people who are strangers (xenophobia is part of the human condition) than those who aren't. Is it also perhaps easier, in Ireland, to condemn outlying acts of overt sexual behaviour than more straight-forward examples of bullying. Anyone with either humility or empathy must have a small sense of "There but for the grace of god . . ."

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