Tuesday, July 22, 2008

In which I am almost one of those academics.

So, I went to this meeting. Dr. Collaborator and a small team of faculty and grad students from his university were there, and Dr. Collaborator presented their grand vision for the new endeavour.

When Dr. C and I had chatted about the project, he gave me a quick and vague overview, so I was surprised to learn that their grand vision was to do all the things that I am already doing. A grossly oversimplified version of that part of the meeting is as follows:

Dr. C & Team: This and that problems are critically important.
Avg Prof in her head: Oh man, I totally agree! So important.
C & T: At our university, we have the critical mass of people working in all the right areas to address these problems.
AP: I am interested in who those people are and what kinds of things they are doing in this area!
C & T: Here is the approach we plan to take.
AP: HUH! That is exactly the approach that I take! . . . But I didn't know there were people at that university who do that approach . . . I have never seen any publications by this group on said approach . . .
Company Guy: Are you guys using this approach in your current research?
C & T: . . . uh, there are people at our university who have used this approach, yes.
AP: Wait, that's not really the same thing.
C & T: ANYWAY, using this approach, there are several really interesting things we can do. Like, this.
AP: I have done that! I have a slide on it in my little presentation.
C & T: Or this.
AP: I have done that too! I also have a slide on that.
C & T: Or this.
AP: Oh. No, you can't do that. I have a slide on that too, along with my alternative approach.

At that point I started to have the smallest inner conflict. In the past (i.e. when I was a particularly green assistant professor riddled with insecurity) I would have panicked and wondered if these guys knew something I didn't, such as: all about my previous/exisiting research and why it was totally flawed and thus needed to be done over, and also about how I am so dense that I didn't see how you could use that approach to do that last thing.

For a brief moment, I regressed to my former shadow-self. But then the more normal me re-emerged, and I thought, more likely: this team has never used this approach, and so they are not as familiar as I am with what can and can't be (or has and hasn't been) done with it. And that this was a nice opportunity for me to express myself on an issue about which I am a relative expert.

And then, a surprise: a little seed of "egomaniacal academic" germinated in my brain and I thought, this is a nice chance for me to stick it to Dr. Collaborator AND position myself as THE authority on this subject. (But my normal self pretty quickly eradicated this weed of an idea, because it's not consistent with my general attitude and behavior.)

Thus, when it came my time to present, I was (hopefully) balanced and matter-of-fact. As in, Dr. C and his team have nicely explained the problems that the research community is positioned to address on this topic, and now I will show you results from some of my work on the questions he raised, as well as point out some of the strengths and weaknesses of the approach he introduced.

Still a little bit of scooping, and yet, not jerky. (And, I might add: very well received.)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A bridge I wanted to burn but wisely did not.

I have an upcoming meeting to attend with a company with whom I have some collaborative research, though this meeting is related to some new endeavour rather than one of the projects I'm already working on with them. At the lead of this new endeavour is another collaborator, from the institution where I recieved my PhD. This collaborator was also, back in the day, a collaborator with my research supervisor and so I am well acquainted with him.

In advance of the upcoming meeting, Dr. Collaborator called me to chat about the project, having seen my name on the list of attendees and not being sure what my role was in the new endeavour (I am not sure either, actually. One of the company guys that I work with just said to the company people planning the new endeavour, "Hey, I work with this woman at this other institution who does those same things. She should come to the meeting.").

Dr. Collaborator said, "Nice to meet you." I said, "Actually, we've met before. I got my PhD five years ago at Your Institution under Dr. Research Supervisor." He said, "Aha! I thought your name sounded really familiar but I wasn't sure why I'd heard it before."

What I sort of wanted to say then, but didn't, was this: "You'll probably recognize my face, when you see it, too, because one time you spent about 45 minutes yelling and swearing right into it."

One day while I was in grad school, I was working with Research Supervisor, another of his students, and one of Dr. Collaborator's students. We were out in the "field" collecting some data using a piece of equipment that Research Supervisor and Dr. Collaborator shared, when the marine battery we used to keep the equipment powered conked out. Research Supervisor suggested we hook the equipment up to our vehicle battery for the remainder of the data collection, which we did. At the end of the day's successful work, I jauntily skipped over to Dr. Collaborator's lab to return the equipment to storage (as much as one could jauntily skip carrying a marine battery). I found Dr. Collaborator to tell him about the battery problem, and when he asked how we were able to collect the rest of the data and I explained we'd hooked the power cables to the vehicle battery instead, he flipped out, calling me several unflattering things and greatly disparaging my judgement skills while making some un-nice predictions about my academic and scientific career. For an extended period of time.

I calmly said, "I will certainly relay your concerns to Dr. Research Supervisor." And then I ran back to my office and cried white hot tears of anger and embarrassment. (Incidentally, I did relay his concerns to Research Supervisor, who several days later had a very boring conversation with Dr. Collaborator about the relative interchangeability of the two batteries for that purpose, and that was the end of that. I did not relay to Research Supervisor that the concerns had come with the free bonus of a long and passionate berating.)

Anywhoo, what I learned was: some professionals are prone to episodes of unprofessional behavior, and Dr. Collaborator is one of those people. I am glad I did not snap back at him even though I had really wanted to, but I am also glad that I already know this about him, and learned it in the relatively safety of my position as a grad student who was just caught in his crosshairs. Should the opportunity arise through this new endeavour to share any equipment or data or anything with Dr. Collaborator, I will not be all that excited about it.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Tilting in one direction.

I just returned from a conference I have attended annually for the last 7 or 8 years. Since I started going to this conference, I have noticed more and more attendees bringing along their families. I think this is not because there have actually been MORE attendees bringing along their families, but rather (1) I have been paying this kind of thing more notice in the last few years, and (2) the demographics of attendees have been shifting as some of the old guard retire and the conference gets a little younger on average, and there are thus more spouses and younger children as opposed to just spouses and the occassional teenager.

The conference tries to cater to the guests as much as possible, but they're evidently more used to the old demographics because the planned "spouse/guest" activities are things like shopping trips and a crafting and needlework show-and-tell session. (My husband was not as amused as I was when I asked him if he was sure he didn't want to attend, since I know he likes to show off his cross-stitching.)

So most of the families of the younger attendees don't do any of those events, and make their own schedules entirely.

I noticed something for the first time this year, though. Three different times, I was heading over to this or that technical session, and came across a (different) little kid, 8 or 10 years old or so, sitting on a chair in the hallway outside the conference rooms, watching a movie on a personal DVD player.

I realize that we all struggle to get keep that notorious work/life balance, but that seems weird to me. I can't quite put my finger on what bothered me about it.

Is it that I felt bad for the kids? I sort of did, but then I thought that was pretty narrow-minded of me, because if it was just one afternoon or so of movie-watching in a week of otherwise fun stuff, then likely going along with mom or dad on work-travel is cool for the kids. And the kids probably get to see and do lots of different things in much of the rest of their time. And of course, it's not like I expect that when the kids are at home, they are being actively engaged/edified/entertained by one or more parents. I watched a lot of movies and tv as a kid, travel or no.

Is it that the kids were out in the hallway essentially unsupervised? Possibly. I mean, that does bother me, but I don't know if that's over-protective or not, and I'm not sure that's the only thing that bothered me.

Is it that the conference seems not to notice the trend and keeps offering these antiquated (not to mention mildly or strongly gender-biased) guest programs? That does irritate me.