One of the last activities of last term was to have a progress meeting of our post-graduate students. they are each requested and required to make a 5 minute presentation of the last 6 months work. Afterwards everyone gets to offer feedback and suggestions. One of the kids was trying to "transform" his bacterial cells by persuading them to uptake some foreign DNA and incorporate it into their genome. To do this the bacteria have to be 'competent' - they need a set of increasingly well-understood genes which allow the uptake-and-incorp of transformation. He was having difficulty getting the technique to work and had spent weeks changing the protocol thus-and-so to work out where the glitch was.
My comment was that the student could with advantage read the undergraduate thesis of his contemporary Darragh who had done his final year research project with me. Darragh had actually beaten a path to my door at the beginning of his final year saying that he was really interested in competence and transformation and would I supervise his research project in that area. We agreed that he would, from the literature, compile an inventory of all the genes known to be necessary and sufficient to establish competence. And then check to see if named bacterial species had the kit or didn't. And it was so. I acted as an occasional foil, but Darragh owned the project and comprehensively motored through the task list. What this suggested was that unless your test bacteria had the tool kit (and you can check the inventory with standard computer/internet tools), then the experimenter was at nothing trying to transform the cells. If the struggling student carried through the Darragh Protocol, he could quickly establish whether his task was even possible, before he wasted even more reagents trying this and that to make it 'work'.
Five days later, I went to 'work' on the Tuesday before Christmas: I did shuffle some papers but I shuffled more tea and coffee. There was a missed call on my fancy works Cisco telephone; it came from Shering-Plough / MSD down in Cork and was <synchronicity alert> demanding a reference for the bold Darragh. I called the number back and it went through to the MSD switch-board. I found out that served 1400 people but the switch transferred me to the number which had dialled me and I came back to the robot "press 1 for an extension; press 2 for a cheese sandwich; press 3 to talk to a person . . .". So I was a little pissed off until I noticed the red light on Ms Cisco which indicated voice mail and that led me to a mobile phone number. The woman at the other end asked me if I found Darragh to be competent. Competent? I launched into a slight ranty explanation of why competent didn't cover the extraordinary dedication, originality and drive of the said Darragh. I kept going even though the telephone started to ring at me: I have a policy of never answering a phone if I am talking to someone else. When I drew breath, I realised that I was talking to the wall because the line had been dropped.
Eventually she called me back - her phone had run out of charge - and I quickly established that she knew no science so I was at nothing trying to explain in detail just how clever and useful Darragh was.
"I suppose you want me to answer all the standard HR catch-all questions?" I asked.
"I'm not HR, I'm An Administrator" she replied.
But whatever her title, she did just want me to tick [Y]es to
Does he keep good time?
Is he a team-player?
Can he work unsupervised?
It turned out that he was already hired by MSD and this whole interaction was about putting him on the permanent payroll. His line-manager knew Darragh much better than me and in a job-appropriate setting. But the poor bugger couldn't just sign his Effective onto the pay-roll; he had to have his opinion independently validated. But not in a meaningful way that might expose Darragh's limitations or indicate his true talents. The MSD Suits had a written a SOP for hiring and promotion which included calling their HR robots "Administrators". What a waste of time and energy, it put quite a damper on my work-day until I went off to meet someone else for coffee.