Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Like with fins?

“I didn’t want to say anything in the meeting,” Henry said, walking into my office after I returned from making my presentation, “but your equation was upside down. You had the two variables switched. The way you had it, it would be infinity!” Then he laughed, trailing off when I gave him a look that expressed my distinct lack of amusement. Given that he used to make attempts at public humiliation that left me enraged and discouraged, this was infinitely better.

After he stopped laughing, he stood and looked at me, so I noted his equation and considered it for a moment.

“I think you’re right.” I finally said. “Thanks for pointing that out – I’ll fix my notes.”

He nodded and launched into his critique of my talk. The meeting lasted over 90 minutes while we examined slides and discussed what I knew and wished I knew and thought I had wrong, but not everyone had a chance to talk enough. The meeting was good – I made some valuable notes on ideas I hadn’t even considered. I was extraordinarily (for me, anyway) prepared and had plenty of material.

Boss was pleased enough at the end to agree to go beg for additional funding with me. There was general agreement that I could pull off some sort of publication with a couple more patients accrued. This pleases me.

But back to Henry.

“It doesn’t make sense to use what you’re using. It’s a big problem.” He concluded.

I sighed, then paused to frown when I saw Maria – who I’d invited to attend the group meeting – was nodding enthusiastically along with his critique.

“I didn’t pick those parameters because I thought they were pretty.” I offered tiredly. “There are several other disease states that are looking for similar effects with exactly those parameters. Given that they were successful and the biological model we’re using indicates those parameters would be likely correlates.”

“Anything can correlate if you look at enough parameters! Even…the color of the sky!”

I scrunched my face further to indicate both displeasure and confusion. “I see your point.” I said slowly, trying to think. Henry is very smart and sees details I definitely miss. “But if there’s a question before me, I tried to answer it the best I could.”

He nodded, so I continued. “Statistics exist to consider a sample size and the effect magnitude. It’s not a color of the sky thing – there’s a biological mechanism and studies have shown – in other diseases – that these parameters are valuable. And while my dataset is incredibly complex, I think there are interesting findings there. The nontrivial part is in explaining them without overstepping what we actually can know.”

Henry smiled, looking somehow pleased with me, but Maria stepped in.

“I think it sounds feeshy.” She said.

“Feeshy?” I repeated, thinking of words I knew. She made a swimming motion with her hands and I nodded immediately. “Oh, fishy! OK!” Then I pulled back to frown at her. “Wait. Fishy? What?”

“Fishy. It doesn’t make sense.” She said, looking at Henry for back-up. He frowned and backed away, throwing a statement at me that we’d talk later. My feeling – though I could be wrong – was that he’s been waiting for me to stand up for my ideas. He wants to be heard, then he’d like to argue. When I backed down in the past, I think his frustration allowed him to taunt me. It sucks that it happened, but I appear to have finally found a way to interact in a way that isn’t excruciating. Either that or he was tired too. I don't know. Regardless, I avoid working with him. If he makes my time unpleasant - for entertainment or boredom or personal style - I'll avoid spending time with Henry.

I waved a hand at him as he left, noted that email was piling up from others in the meeting who had ideas or suggestions, then turned back to face Maria. “What doesn’t make sense?” I said, being a bit aggressive. I’m all for questions, but to attack a method – a well-established, highly popular, many journals devoted to it method – because you have a feeling it’s fishy? Seriously?

She listed a couple of standard concerns about the method - not completely true, but I saw her points - and I explained how we protect the data from each of the major problems, though there is some risk of confounding your experiment if it’s not properly designed. She eventually shrugged and said she might do some reading at some point.

I opened my mouth to offer her some references, then turned around. I think I’m reaching my limit with this particular student. She leaves regularly, sometimes when I’m trying to work with her on things. She talks on the phone a good percentage of the time she’s around. She has yet to write anything about her research plan and never did help with the project I gave to Ken. I’m too busy and tired to coax someone into proper thought and behavior.

And there lies the problem, I think. She was trying to fit in – pick out flaws, fix errors, make suggestions. Those are all good things and the approaches vary depending on personality. I don’t have to love each person, but I can respect talent and thought when it’s expressed in some decent manner. But I have little patience for someone who belittles a well-studied field out of ignorance, then refuses to expand her scope of understanding. It also makes me unlikely to invite her to more meetings given that she’s going to side with anyone who tries to make me look stupid. I’m not up for battling people from all directions. Perhaps I should feel badly about that – and I don’t expect her to be constantly affirming.

But fishy? Really? Curses.

But the day started with advice – good advice – from Quiet Mentor, along with several powerful introductions. Quiet Mentor, by the way, is a pretty big deal. After the meeting, I have more data than when I started, thanks to some suggestions on where to find extra information and papers. I have an alternate analysis method for a piece of data I was planning to ignore. It was a good day.

Perhaps it’s catty of me, but I didn’t believe it to be fishy at all.


TitleTroubles said...

I still wish to be there when you finally tell her that she isn't worth your time and energy. I do enjoy a good smack-down. I also still don't think that she is worth either your time or your energy, and somehow she's managing to continue to decrease in my estimation.

LeRoy Dissing said...

Without seeing the data, the method or the correlations, it would be difficult to say anything is "fishy". If anything, she could have said your presentation warranted more study to verify the results/conclusions. If the study can be replicated with the same results, that adds considerable integrity to the correlation. You seem to be looking for a cause/effect relationship when you find correlations...and then trying to control for all the other variables that might affect the outcome is another matter. Perhaps that is where the skepticism comes in...or the cattiness.

If I were either of them, I would just say: I'd like to study that further and can I get back to you with questions?

Sounds like you did your homework. Maybe they didn't?

EA said...

Brava! for figuring out a way to interact with Henry, hear what he's saying, and at the same time stay in your own mindset about the project. THIS is TOTALLY the attitude I am aiming for with my advisor... I'm getting there, but I still back up into defense rather than productive conversation sometimes. Rock on!

Phdladybug said...

I agree with ea. Bravo to you to take the comments and used them in a positive way.

For the "fishy" comment (boy, that's new!), I just think it's inappropriate for all the reasons you've already posted. I think she should think about getting her work done first instead of giving stupid criticism to other people.

The Contessa said...

I agree with titles....

Feeshy??? I laughed like hell - I knew exactly what the meant - live in a town with that kind of commentary daily.

Post a Comment