Wednesday, 17 June 2015

The value of capable

Today was a tough day in the lab. Supertech and I are flying solo (PI is away), and we are running two weeks of experiments using a rather expensive, and rather delicate, piece of custom built equipment. The experiments are supposed to be straightforward. As today showed, "supposed" is the operative word here.
It should be noted that supertech and I (well, mostly supertech. I just help) are pretty anal about planning experiments. We put a lot of thought into how the experiments are going to run, and we test as much as we can beforehand. The reason for this is that once experiments start, there is no time to think. Baby animals are screaming to be fed, multiple multi hour surgeries need to be done, and we need to make sure that people don't get irradiated by the high powered fluoroscopes (there are two). The simple act of getting through experiments drains brains and nerves.
But even with the best laid plans, things go wrong. Not everything can be anticipated. Which lead to today, when our expensive piece of machinery (basically, a series of precise electronically controlled pumps) stopped working. With four screaming hungry pigs in the room.
As in turned out, a crucial piece of information had been left out when discussing the design of the system (before I or Supertech joined the lab). Why? Who knows. The same reason that, with hindsight, really obvious things are missed from experimental planning. Essentially, the pumps got fouled up by the radio opaque particulates in the liquid we pump. Two weeks of experiments and four animals were at stake.
Supertech and I then went into super capable mode. We troubleshooted the system every way we knew. I called the manufacturer, and confirmed what the issue was. We found a way to clean the pumps, and then started to work on solving the problem that our fluid had particles that were too large. Within an hour we had three possible solutions. Within two hours we had started to put in place all three. By seven pm this evening, Supertech and her husband had built a high volume filtering system that would remove the large particles from our suspension (we'd already by this point checked that this kept the solution radio opaque). Tomorrow experiments will resume, and we will only be one day behind.
As a lab team, supertech and I are capable. We can deal on the fly with most crises. When something goes wrong, within half an hour we have a plan, within a hour we're putting it in place. We brainstorm, prioritize, call people and get things fixed. She's better than I am, but I pull my weight. I don't think we've lost much more than a week on any experimental schedule, and that was due to unforeseen animal death. We have stayed overnight in the lab to care for sickly animals. We've harassed suppliers to get things overnighted. We've become conversant in technical topics we knew nothing about. We get things done.
For the science, this is great. For the animals, this is essential. But for us... I worry. I worry that capability, the ability to creatively solve problems on the fly, and to put in the effort to do it, doesn't always reap the rewards equivalent to its cost in hours and stress. I don't mean to impugn our PI. She treats us exceptionally well, recognizes our efforts, and has rewarded us with substantial autonomy and authority on the running of the lab. I mean rather, that the labor market since Taylor and Ford has been structured so as not to rely on the capable worker. To a manufacturer, the added value of a capable line worker is marginal compared to a merely adequate one. And in science, techs and postdocs (and graduate students) are somewhat like manufacturing labor. Yes, a good postdoc adds value to the lab, but how much value relative to a merely adequate one?
Many of my smart, capable friends in other jobs hide their capability, revealing it only to those they trust not to exploit it. Capable people need to learn to say no, because they get asked to do more than most, and all of the difficult, non rote tasks. And problem solving is tiring work.
I like being capable. I like not being helpless in the face of problems. But I worry that capability is a liability, because it becomes assumed, and because its value to the beneficiaries is less than its cost to those who do the capable work.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Other skills

I grew up in a large apartment in the center of London. We had no outdoor space, and no spaces that weren't used as everyday rooms (no sheds, garages, basements, attics). In fact, the only non essential room we had was my mother's study and library, which is probably relevant to the content of this post. My mother was a high school teacher, my father a civil servant. As a result, I never had much occasion to dabble in practical, manual skills like gardening, or DIY, or car maintenance. There was neither the space, nor the people to teach me.
I should add that I wasn't raised to be contemptuous of manual work. My mother's father was a master craftsman, specialized in tin roofing, and everyone in her family were the kind of people who could build a house from scratch, or plant a vegetable garden the size of a field. The kind of people who did, in fact, because they could never find a contractor who would meet their standards. (One of my mother's aunts, in her late 80s when I knew her, still hoed her vegetable garden by hand because she felt the hoeing machine her son rented for her left too big clods of dirt in the soil). My mother had learnt all these skills, as well as all the other skills of needlework that women in the family were taught. But, through a combination of moving to the city and lack of aptitude, she never developed them like her siblings did. What she kept, however, was an appreciation of good craftsmanship, which she used when guiding the remodeling of our house in London.
I've often felt, as I've become older and more independent, that my lack of practical skills was a mild hindrance. Abstractly, I worry about having no skills to help in a zombie apocalypse. Concretely, day to day, I feel vulnerable to things going wrong (plumbing leaks, car troubles), and I feel that I pay for tasks I ought not to (trouser alterations). It would be easy to run with the idea that I am "intellectual" and not practically minded. But such dichotomies are dangerous and patronizing. And besides, I have spent the past year developing into a rather good surgeon. Surely that suggests I am more practical, and better with my hands, than I might think.
It was the process of buying a car for the first time about a year ago that really reminded me of my lack of practical DIY skills. For financial reasons, I decided to buy a car from a private seller rather than a dealership, and the cars I was looking at were old. I quickly realized that I felt completely out of my depth as I opened bonnets to stare at engines I knew nothing about, and took cars on test drives without really understanding what I was looking for. In the end, I picked the wrong car of two that I saw, because I couldn't tell the difference between cosmetic rust, and a concerning engine.
Last weekend, I took my truck on my first solo roadtrip from Ohio to Virginia and back. On the last day, I was about to leave my friend's house in southern Maryland when he noticed a leak that I had been ignoring (on the basis it was an old car). He pointed out to me that my rear differential was leaking a lot of fluid, and that there was a fair chance I wouldn't make it back to Ohio if I didn't get it looked at. I managed to find a garage to patch my differential cover, and made it back to Ohio, but the experience unsettled me. Without my friend, I would likely have been, best case scenario, stranded on a highway roadside with a totaled truck. My lack of knowledge had nearly cost me dearly.
So this weekend, I got another friend, who's been rebuilding cars since he was teenager, to come and look at my truck and walk me through the basics of car maintenance. We drove it and listened to the engine, and discussed various ideas of what might be wrong (the gears were shifting oddly and I was losing power going up hill). We checked fluid levels, and he crawled under and looked at the other leak (water from the AC, he thinks). We changed the sparkplugs, which improved things, suggesting that a cylinder malfunction was the major reason for my engine issues.
I spent the rest of the weekend gardening, planting flowers on our deck for the second year running. There's a clematis and a rose bush out there that I protected through the harsh winter. They've bounced back well. I feel like I've learnt something.
I will never, like my uncle and grandfather, be able to do everything around a house. I will probably never be able to plaster or tile, or take apart and rebuild an engine. But my lack of practical knowledge and skills is not a destiny. It is a choice, and something I can change, until I reach a level of knowledge that removes the anxiety of being at the mercy of things I don't understand and cannot help.
My stitching is terrible though, so I may still have to pay to get my pants hemmed.