Tuesday 28 April 2015

Saying thanks

We don't say Thanks half enough.  It costs so little to acknowledge that someone has done something for you.  In Ireland, the culture of tipping waitrons is nowhere near as highly developed as it is in America, so throwing a handful of change on the table as you leave the café is often seen as enough, if not exactly 'plenty' or 'abundance'.  With two daughters working in the catering trade, it's probably true that the waitron would rather you looked them in the eye when they took your order and brought the buns. Several years ago one Saturday, I went into t'office in TCD and was surprised to meet one of the graduate students from the lab next door shuffling a big stack of papers.  It was Der Tag: the day that her PhD thesis was finally printed and she was collating the copies into five piles for binding at the print-shop.  As you do, I picked up one copy and leafed through to the Acknowledgments, the only bit that anybody but the external examiner reads.  After tribbing her supervisor, her family and her lab mates, she wrote "special thanks are due to Bob "Brain-the-size-of-a-plant" Scientist".  I thought this was so neat and ironic that I laughed out loud, appreciating the deliberate mangling of a tired old phrase with something ambiguous [did she mean the mighty giant redwood Sequoiadendron giganteum or the diminutive genetic work-horse mouse-eared cress Arabidopsis thaliana?]. She was puzzled at my response and, when I explained, got uncharacteristically flustered as she set about reprinting that page 5x with the typo corrected.

In the final year of the biology course in the Institute, all students carry out a final year independent research project. Project students are assigned hours in a particular laboratory each week and peck away at the coal-face under the supervision of a faculty-member. By no means all faculty members opt to dream up and supervise such research projects and remarkably it is optional.  I signed up immediately I was given the opportunity to do so because a) you get some hours off your teaching load and b) it's much more interesting pushing frontiers with some young chap than grinding through a curriculum heavy with ideas and technologies that would not have been out of place in 1915. the project supervisors take turns at acting as the adult physically in the lab. Supervision hours are a bit of a doddle: you can let the students get on with their experiments while you mark lab-copies for another course.  Occasionally one of the students will ask a question on the level of "Where do they keep the pipettes?" but even then you can sit down for an hour and rest the old pins.

Every Monday and Friday morning for the last 30 weeks, I've spent three hours on each day supervising 4th Year Bioinformatic Research Projects. 6x 30 = 180hrs = nearly 1/3 of my teaching load. It's the first year that a whole section of the final year cohort have opted to do a computational biology project, rather than tricking about with eppendorfs, Petri dishes and spectrophotometers in the lab.  This is possibly because that door has never been offered for them to push open; but it's also probably because I caught them at the end of Third Year and gave them 3 hours of war-stories about my triumphs and failures while pushing the frontiers of molecular evolution.  I gave them 3 hours, above and beyond my 600 hour/year teaching quota, because I've only had three good ideas in a lifetime of science and a fourth hour would have been punctuated by very long silences.

In the end, 16 students got to carry out compu-projects in one of the computer suites of the business school. I was only officially supervising half of them, the others were pursuing ideas from one or other of my colleagues. But I was the adult in the room so they became the B team: B for Bob, B for Bioinformatics. This has not been a doddle: for each three hour session I've been gabbing on with someone from the start to the finish of the allocated time. One part of the B-team used to arrive at 10am, leave their kit and pop out for a coffee-and-chat break.  For the rest, some were religious in being there for every class while others seemed to have a lot of other engagements; there was no correlation between this variable and how far their part of the frontier was pushed. It was all the most tremendous fun, juggling all these different investigations in my head.  The kids soon learned that it was hopeless to start a sentence with "Remember what you said last week . . ." On the one hand, I found myself trying to rein back the enthusiasts as they went off the rails of the possible. On the other side of the room five minutes later I'd be pushing pushing pushing a student up what I thought was a gentle intellectual incline and he acted like I was asking him to scale Mt Impossible without iCrampons. And every project was unique: different organisms, different tools, different deliverables. It was mostly about getting each one to to fulfill their potential and a little bit more - not unlike home education with Dau.I and Dau.II all over again.

The deadline for submission of their project report and their literature review [3 copies] bound together as a single document was 1pm on Friday 17th April, which gave the supervisors a week in term time to read and mark the things. Because it was a physical copy, the students had to find me or find their supervisor rather than whack off an e-mail.  I dropped into the class at 10am and again about 12.50 in case anyone had turned up to class or didn't know where my office was.  Nobody there, but as I walked back across the concourse I was stopped by the coffee-and-chat ladies, still acting in concert.  They presented me with a little glossy-paper gift-bag containing a) a mug [R] b) a packet of tea-bags and c) some rich-tea biscuits d) a note "For all the tea-breaks you missed because of us . . . have a drink on us" e) a card signed by everyone in the B-team. They hopped from one foot to the other until I'd opened everything up.  It was >!gulp!< right on the button. They had read me so well - I would have been appalled if they'd spent a lot of money on something that was of no use.  They were really paying me back, touché, in my own kind after all my ironic comments about privileging tea-breaks over work.  Has that ever happened to me before? I reckon not. So thanks!  On the back of the binfo-mug in smaller letters it says "Thanks for everything Bob, love the B Team"  I do I do!

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