Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Fume Hoods and Transitive Verbs

I hate being needy. Or, rather, I hate feeling dependent. It’s one thing to feel comforted or to be taken care of—that’s nice. However, what I don't like is feeling incompetent. Consequently, this makes my not-being-a-lab-scientist and not-being-a-statistician-or-analyst terribly frustrating, considering the duties I have taken on at work. It is difficult enough to speak intelligently with an award-winning bacteria researcher or a renowned immunologist, never mind then having to turn the information from those conversations into articles simple and interesting enough for laypeople to read.

This is what I do for Beyond the Bench, the blog on our Current Protocols website. As I delve into topics for each blog article, I find myself reaching out to every friend and coworker I know who either works or has worked in a lab, asking about everything from what rights rats have to what a blastema is. Yes, this is research, but it is also a clear indication—even merely to myself—of how little I know about science--or any topic, really. (Because even after I write each article, I would have to reread it in order to recall any of the information I wrote in it. How about that for short-term memory?!)

Meanwhile, my job seems to be ever-sliding toward some sort of number-crunching mania. Unfortunately, neither high school nor college prepared me even slightly in the way of Excel manipulation, so as I struggle along, my lifelines consist of:

  • a few in-house numerical whizzes whom I try never to bother because a) they are probably more swamped with number-related projects than I am, and b) because, quite honestly, I am ashamed to admit my own incompetency
  • one hometown friend who is a computer genius, but whom I feel horribly guilty for taking such advantage of, since I feel virtually useless in return
  • one brilliant cousin who is also an Excel guru but of whose generosity I also feel guilty of abusing, even if he is family
  • Google, which—in spite of its awesome power—does not always have the answer (thus leading me to grovel at the feet of one of my formerly mentioned options)

This is not to say I am completely useless. On a rare occasion, someone will have an essay they need to have looked over or a resume proofread. More often than not, however, the people who ask me to do these things are not the same people I ask for help--thus, leaving me feeling just as guilty and indebted as ever. (Because as much as I would like to believe in karma, I simply cannot help feeling that I owe people favors who do me favors. Even if I don't necessarily want people feeling that they owe me when I can help them with something like an essay. It's hypocritical, I know.)

The other day, however, I did have the good fortune of finally giving back to someone who had helped me. The interaction started with my usual neediness: I contacted a friend online to find out how exactly a fume hood works in a laboratory. (I'm writing about laboratory efficiency for my next CP blog article, but since I don't work in a laboratory, I figured it would be easiest to ask someone who does. This particular friend, R___, works in a research lab at Harvard.)

A little while later, after he had finished answering my questions, R___ returned to ask me, "What's a transitive verb?" At first, I was so surprised to see the question, I nearly didn't give a proper answer. Then, I was so eager to answer, I almost gave too much information. Finally! Someone was asking me a question I could help them with! I quickly supplied a definition, an example, and a counterexample in quick succession. And what was even more exciting? He actually seemed interested! A scientist was interested in the definition of a transitive verb! Wonders will never cease.

Meanwhile, already at 9 a.m. my day was complete: I had returned a favor and proven myself not only useful, but also knowledgeable. I might not have a Ph.D. in physics, and I may not (yet?) know how to manipulte the WOMBAT bibliometric template in Excel, but hey, I can define a transitive verb, and I can define it well!


K said...

Girl, do not feel guilty! We are friends, not colleagues or acquaintances. In my opinion and my personal dealings, colleagues/acquaintances go by the "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" mentality. If I do something for a colleague or acquaintance, I expect a favor in return. Friends give and expect nothing in return. Therefore, because we are friends, I expect nothing in return. QED. :-)

Besides, your questions provide a good break from feeling like I'm running repeatedly into a brick wall when I get generic error messages for no good reason. :-P

Anonymous said...

I agree with K totally. That's what differentiates a friend from a colleague/acquaintance.

Then, too, look at the taking and giving of "favors" as pay-it-forward actions. Yes, it's nice when you can reciprocate; but, if you provide a favor to someone and it encourages that person to do a favor for the next person, it makes the world a much better place. So, the next time you ask a colleague/acquaintance for help or a favor, think of it as providing them with an opportunity to pay-it-forward.