Sorry, we’ve got the conference room booked all afternoon

Our PI (academese for “principle investigator”; see also: advisor, research professor, The Boss) has been out of town all week, and his flight back got cancelled yesterday, so weekly group meeting was cancelled. When this happens we tend to move group meetings to the Grad Lounge where a fine selection of beverages are on tap. It makes our weekly research talks that much more amusing. With one of our memeber’s thesis defense coming up though, we opted to prep for that instead by going to get congratulation cards and booking a place for a celebratory lunch. It was a nice change of pace.

To be fair, I really like group meetings, both personally and as an abstract idea. Jonah Lehrer from Wired recently had a really interesting article called “The Neuroscience of Screwing Up” which, along with a whole lot of insight into how scientists think, made a really good case for group meetings. The meat of the article is about how our brains deal with seeing results we don’t expect (short answer: not very well, from a scientists point of view), but there’s a short bit about group meetings and how they are pretty crucial for problem solving. I know I can personally vouch for that. I’ve stopped counting the number of times someone in group meeting wasn’t able to make heads or tails of some data and then went “Oh yeah…I never thought of that!” when someone else tried to wrap their mind around it out loud.

You’ve been voted off the island

Our group has been shrinking lately. One of the post-docs took off for a new job last week, our German exchange student’s semester-long gig is ending tomorrow, and one of the older students has her defense on Monday and is taking up a post-doc somewhere else next week. Our advisor busted out one of his bottles of champagne last group meeting to properly send off the first two, and I’m sure we’ll be celebrating a bit after the defense.

Still, three leaving students introduces a distinct brain-drain situation. In theory, all of their techniques and methods are recorded in their lab notebooks, which, for legal reasons, actually belong to the group and get left behind when they move out. In theory. Occasionally notebooks disappear with the student, which is a fairly serious No-No, but does happen. More often, things aren’t quite so diligently recorded. We have an former student’s notebook floating around that we like to look at for laughs when we’re feeling down. There is a literally a page that says “Made molecule A, took an NMR spectra. :)” Yes, the smiley face was there. No, he didn’t have anything else to say about the procedure.

Suffice it to say, I’m finding it interesting how the rest of us have been doing last-minute brain-picking to make sure we have what we need from those leaving. The post-doc had a weekly teaching session where he showed us the unwritten tricks of making his molecules (the previous week’s lesson: where all the best napping spots are in the building). I’ve been making the German translate all the foreign words out of his notebook for the rest of us. Still, there’s no way to avoid a loss of expertise when people leave. The next few weeks will probably be full of “Dammit, how did John do this? Someone give me his new phone number.”

Prediction: Profs by 14

I’ve found that working with my advisor in a PhD context is like an awkward hybrid between the undergrad student-professor relationship and a typical 9-5 working relationship. On the one hand, I never saw my professors outside the lecture hall during undergrad outside of a certain run to Five Guys Burgers. They just didn’t frequent the same circles as undergrads (rather unsurprising, really, when those circles can be solely described by greek letters). On the other, these days we’re still not going out for brewskies before heading home for the night, PhD or not.

Awkward hybrid is definitely the most appropriate description. I say this with a particular incident in mind. A few of my friends were out at the bar last night, and one of their advisors happened to be there too. It’s not inconceivable; he’s a pretty young guy. He invited them all over to the swanky wine place next door with the sort of menus that don’t have prices on them. He bought a few bottles of wine, picked up desserts for everyone, and they just schmoozed. How very odd. I remember the day when I became Facebook friends with one of my undergraduate professors, and that was weird enough. Having a wine and cake night is a whole different beast.

I mention it because tonight is the Super Bowl, and my advisor has invited everyone over to his place for his annual game-watching party. After asking around a bit on Friday, it sounds like the guest list is composed of all the department professors plus the handful of students in our research group. How very odd. The rest of my afternoon was then spent listening to stories from previous years about how strange it was hanging out, eating dip, and watching your professors get drunk.

Still, it should be amusing. We’ve been lured in with promises of the Wall of Football and getting to play with my advisor’s dog. All of those, of course, are nothing compared to the possibility of seeing the heads of our department all simultaneously yelling at the Big Screen. I, for one, am going to see if they’ll let me wager my cumulative exam grade on a point spread.

No, we do not have an extra electron microscope just lying around

Our lab has had a problem recently with people from other parts of the building “borrowing” equipment. The term here is used loosely, since we’re rarely told when they take stuff, or even asked for that matter.

I worked in retail for a very short bit during my undergrad career, and for some reason I’m a bit surprised at how similar the situation is in research academia. Given the whole building is one big department, we’ve definitely got that community vibe going strong. It’s not too surprising then when you realize there’s something you need on the next floor down, and hey, we’re all in this together right? It happened a lot at my retail gig; the price gun would spontaneously teleport across the store (mind you, this was a large department store), your extra roll of receipt paper would be gone, that sorta thing. So it happens here too. The difference of course being that a loose coat hangar isn’t really equivalent to a $8000 dual channel source meter, if only for the fact that I can’t hang my lab coat on it.

Next week: The Armani Equation

Lesson of the Day: We were having a lecture today , and the guy giving it, a fairly renowned theoretical polymer physicist, explained, “Generally, models are fun to look at but don’t offer much practical use. I mean, look at those models out on catwalks. Would you wear those dresses every day? No way!. It’s the same with the physics model here.”

(For the record, he was talking about the Rouse Model, which is particularly noteworthy for the reason that it doesn’t work as originally intended.)