Thursday, May 03, 2007

Suck, or rhyme thereof

“So what’s up with Maria?” Dawn asked yesterday. I shrugged and turned away from my computer. Dawn’s meeting was yesterday afternoon, not Tuesday. She wrote the day down wrong. Mistakes are common in times of stress, but she continued to prepare and was all worked up and ready to fight when she left yesterday.

“We’re supposed to be working on this project.” I said of Maria. “It’s just that my attendance is – to anyone other than me – unpredictable. Her appearances in the office seem to be the same. So we don’t see each other all that often, which makes collaborating difficult. So…I don’t know.”

“What’s the project?” Ken asked, glancing up from his notes. He doesn’t go in for the personal details, bless him, but he does like the work.

For the next 20 minutes, I did what I should have been doing with Maria. We talked about this little side project. Why it’s important, what the goal is, how to implement the code line by line in Matlab, what loop structures to use. He wrote examples on the board and I corrected him when he started down a path I’d tried already. Once he’d finished writing it out, Dawn had long since turned back to her piles of printed emails.

I sat back at my desk, sighed and started to write out notes. I was thinking about the stupid project, so I might as well make progress on the code while I waited to collect my own data. This particular project has been on my desk for over a month. It’s a favor for another scientist, so the turnaround should have been a bit quicker. It was, in our defense, trickier than it first seemed. But the premise is quite simple and the code – if properly considered – is relatively straightforward. Given that Boss has asked me about it recently, I moved it up my list of priorities and decided to do something this week.

Ken walked over and stood behind my chair, watching me type in my Matlab window. He took his turn at correcting me, doing math in his head and offering advice on how he debugged code.

“That should be 20 to 4890 in steps of 10.” He noted as we parsed out data into a matrix. I typed something in and he offered his advice on how it could work faster.

“So if you…” he continued instructing. I’ve worked with enough scientists to recognize one that gets fixated on a problem. He was writing code in his head, I knew, and I was just slowing him down.

“I’m tired.” I finally said, my brain screaming for a nap while his was busy doing calculations. I’m recruiting for all projects, have a list of my own that’s long and growing and am concerned about being able to get all this stuff done. I woke twice last night and came to the laptop to start more code so that it’d be finished when I woke up again. I’m a bit overwhelmed right now.

“Do you want to take a break?” He asked eagerly. Ken’s laptop had been left at his apartment, so he coveted my pretty iMac, with its ability to talk to Matlab. “I could work on this for a while if you want to do something else.”

I smiled and picked up the paper I’m to review. I have no idea what’s going on, frankly, and knew my craving for a nap would hardly be conducive to constructive comments. But I gracefully shuffled down the hall and found a comfortable chair in the break room. I tucked a leg underneath my body and settled in to read, making notes and underlining text to keep myself focused.

It is, I decided as I settled the papers on my legs and leaned my head back against the wall, difficult for me to determine my motives sometimes. I was charmed that Ken was so interested in the data. Given that I’d rather not deal with it and Maria is clearly not around to handle it, it was a refreshing change to see progress. He continued to work on it – though I told him several times he shouldn’t feel obligated – and sent me a file tonight that would make the exact results I wanted a couple hours ago.

The right thing, I think, would have been to wait for Maria. In some sense, I was asked to guide the initial stages of her research and I’m willing to do that. If I were around constantly, which isn’t an irrational expectation, then we could work when she happened to be in the office. Then she would learn and we would make slow progress toward her independent career.

Given that I’m excellent at justifications – one must obtain such a skill if inherently lazy and prone to guilt – I can make arguments for doing it the way I did.

Ken is always around. He puts in many hours at the office, and is therefore available for those random discussions. Collaborations are often born of convenience – if I have a problem and someone is there to help me, I’ll likely ask for assistance. So Ken is rewriting a section of my chapter since I’d said I was struggling with one section. He offered to take a look. He gets to be an author and I get to ignore a section that was hard for me. Lovely.

I can deal with Matlab, but my skill is limited in some situations. I was looking up several commands and trying to decide how the structure should go when Ken stepped in and started figuring it out. It was a relief, frankly, to release control over the project when I had work of my own to do. When working with Maria, it’s a step-by-step process. Ken’s way is just so much easier for me. Given that I’m recruiting for all projects, I have a full list of my own crap. Getting rid of it seems appealing.

Despite my reasons it was OK to give Ken Maria’s project, I immediately felt guilty when I found her at her desk this morning.

“Hey.” I greeted her and she looked up and smiled. I sat at my desk, busy trying to get things started and copied and sent to the appropriate people. She asked a question about the data and I answered her quickly. She remained stuck, so I offered a bit more advice. When I’d finished with the most pressing tasks, I rolled my chair over and tried to help.

I got the distinct impression that she was annoyed with me. She’d seen Ken and he mentioned he was working on the code. Given that she’s asked me what’s going on a couple of times, I felt badly that I’d moved on without her. But our paths hadn’t crossed recently! And I took the easier road rather than the right one, perhaps.

I patted her shoulder after watching her make the same mistakes over and over, and said I’d think for a minute and see what I could figure out. I answered a couple emails then rolled back over to her desk to watch her battle a software program. My phone rang, so I dealt with a collaborator and his questions for several minutes.

Maria was putting her laptop away when I turned around again.

“I have an appointment.” She offered and I smiled and nodded. Like Boss, I’m not fond of conflict. I’m fine with people not putting in hours at the office – it’s not like I’m setting records for face time myself. Not wanting to make her feel guilty, I had turned back to my work when I realized we’d never make progress at that rate. So I asked to see her laptop while she was gone, hoping I could change some settings or figure out why her software was having problems. She handed it over and within 5 minutes I had an answer. Pleased with myself and eager to provide help, I put her laptop away and continued to work on my own stuff.

She still hadn’t returned when I left for the afternoon. I considered waiting for her, but knew I’d be annoyed if she returned late. Given that she’s been in the office less than 4 hours this week, I wasn’t confident that she’d return at all.

The point is that it’s hard to help her right now. There are all sorts of reasons that she’s not making progress and I’m not being a good post-doc, but it really comes down to a level of difficulty that I’m not willing to deal with. I’ll find an easier way. And I think good mentoring requires more than that.

“Do you think she’ll be OK?” I asked Jill of Dawn last night. She shrugged and frowned.

“Boss, as wonderful as he is, doesn’t do conflict. So as he tries to smooth things over, I’m not sure she’ll get what she wants.”

I nodded in agreement. Having worked with Boss, I know he likes everything to be calm and polite. This was lovely when I was avoiding work and knew he would postpone any confrontations. It is less than ideal when you want someone to stand up and fight for you.

Jill stopped by this morning as I was frowning over Maria’s laptop. I looked up and made a worried face at her.

“She’s not coming.” I said of Dawn.

“I know. I got an email too. You should check on her.” I promised I would, then Jill returned to her office.

Dawn didn’t respond to my last email. She said only that she was to take a day off and reflect on what she wanted to do. Given that she was relatively firm on wanting out of EB’s lab, I can only assume the easiest option that occurred to Boss was to ask her to more carefully consider her decision.

There must be some balance between convenience and justice. I wonder if being exhausted and overwhelmed by work is the best way to find it though.

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