Thursday, February 20, 2014

A comment makes it to the big show! Let's hear it for Wombat!

Yesterday, Wombat related a story from her graduate school days about a darling undergrad research "assistant."  The only problem with her writing was that it was in the comments section of another post.  This is front page material. 

For all you commenters out there, don't hesitate to send me your stories like this.  More people can read them if we post on the blog's main page.  Check your promotion guidelines but I'm pretty sure it would count as a publication too.

Without further ado, I will leave you with Wombat's Tale of Woe.  Adieu!

My undergrad had a constantly growing preamble:
I'm so busy, I have my 1st bio lab, a paper to read for psych, and a problem set for calc due this week.
I'm so busy, I have 2 bio labs, a paper to read for psych, 2 problem sets for calc and an english essay due this week...

She routinely touched things while I screamed "stop stop stop" "stop don't touch that don't touch it" "Stop, Jen just fucking sto... fuck you're like a 3 year old why don't you stop?" She pointed to a perfect bullseye pattern a certain kind of really tuned up laser makes when everything is perfect - she said it was a fingerprint - I said "No, that's not what that is, it's fine, it's caused by.. no don't touch it!" as she stuck a greasy wrench in the beam and ablated wrench crud all over it and ruined the day's work. Everytime she entered the lab, something broke and time was lost.

One time she skipped the preamble and jumped right in with:
My midterm progress paper for research is due Thurs, so can you just write up what we've been doing and give it to me by Wed so I can practice it before the presentation?

We had a great laugh about that.

Whenever she showed up, we hit Napster (remember Napster?) with The Offspring queued up for her arrival.

Then, at the end of the semester, after doing nothing, she told us this awesome story:
I never passed orgo I lab because I got an inc. and then the professor made it an F. So I need this research class to graduate because I talked to [undergrad program coordinator] and he said it would be ok since I passed lecture and all of orgo II, so obviously I didn't miss much even though the professor felt he had to fail me because I was missing some labs {if intro bio was any indication, "some" meant "all of the"}, so can you just give me that data now so I can turn it in?

This is when I had enough. I flipped out on her. I said there is no way research in a laser lab is an appropriate substitute for orgo and that [undergrad coordinator] must have been high or looking down her shirt when she asked. I told her that if she got an inc, no one "changed it" to an F, she failed when she never bothered to make up the work and that her whole life was going to be failure if she didn't change. I told her I wasn't "giving" her anything BUT.... and it's the "but" we always regret - I'd give her one last chance to get data. I asked her when she could come. She told me when she could come. I said "that sounds early. I have to spend 1 entire day taking my experiment apart and 1/2 of the morning putting yours together anyway, so can you come at lunch instead? Then I know you won't miss the bus or feel sick in the morning, ok?" "yes, I swear, thank you" "you HAVE to come, because then it will take the rest of the day to get you something you can use and then I'll take another day and a half to put my experiment back together - and the only reason I'm sacrificing 4 days for you is because I want you to graduate because after this semester I am not losing another minute of progress or another dime of the supply budget on you, do you understand? This is your absolute last chance and if I look out the window and witness, with my own 2 eyes, space aliens abducting you on your way in, you're still fucked because it's your last chance NO MATTER WHAT!" "I will be there!"

2 days after my experiment was put back together, she shows up and says "Sorry I didn't make it the other day, my boyfriend was giving me crap about needing space and I was too upset to drive. Did you take that data for me?"

She never graduated.
My advice: Make an Offspring channel on Pandora.


  1. I had a student once when I was a postdoc. He was an undergraduate, second year. He convinced the soft-hearted boss to allow him to be a lab assistant, with me as a supervisor. In our first meeting in the lab, he said that I would need to move some equipment around to make some space for him to set up some experiments, and that he would need to have a corner of the lab cleared out for him to have a desk to work and write at. He said that what would work best would be for me to acquire the data, since I was good with the equipment in the lab, and then give it to him, so that he could write it up for publication. He said that he thought that this arrangement should work out to about three or four publications per semester, and what journals did I think we could be publishing in? I gave him a stack of papers to read about what we were trying to do. He said that he didn't want to read what other people had done because he wanted to approach the work with a fresh mind and that he wanted to do new things, not just a bunch of stuff just like other people had done. I told him to read the articles, and show up next time ready to work. He flaked out on the next two scheduled meetings, at times that he suggested. Then he went to the boss and complained that I was stifling him and holding him back from publishing his brilliant things. We all had a good laugh about it, and refined the boss' filters so that he wouldn't wind up talking to similar students later.

    Stories like this and like the Wombat's are sadly common in the laboratory sciences. I gotta million of 'em. The labflakes' identities seem to melt together into a decades-deep slush of incompetence. And then there are the injury and damage stories. Not to say that there haven't been some wonderful students, too. Those times are awesome, when you get a good one.

    1. Yeah, I've also had students who refused to read, because "It will stifle my brilliant, new, original ideas." Paul Verhoeven, who directed the 1997 film "Starship Troopers," never did finish reading the novel by Robert Heinlein, and look how the film turned out.

    2. Then there are those students who were self-appointed geniuses and gave me "unique" and "brilliant" solutions to questions I posed on my exams. I had one like that soon after I started teaching. He got the correct numerical answer but his reasoning was complete nonsense.

      He was at our institution because he was given what we called a "dean's vacation" from the university on the other side of the city. (In other words, he flunked out badly and wasn't allowed to return until he smartened up academically.) How here's the scary part. After graduation, he returned to university and finished his degree. He went on to grad studies and is apparently working in the aircraft business.

      I hope he got his head straightened out by the time he finished his master's. Anybody whose logic was like what he presented to me on that exam would be dangerous in industry.

    3. Oh, I do so love that they don't want their original ideas to be stifled in a quest to learn from previous work. They might just find out that their ideas have already been done, or that due to other ideas that were already tried, their ideas have no hope of bearing new fruit. Why spoil a brilliant hypothesis with an ugly, already-known fact?

  2. Great idea to pull something this entertaining out for a real post of its own! Plus, it means the comments don't hijack the original post. :)

  3. Aw - you found my giant-wombat-using-school-buses-like-toys pic :)

    Sorry to have hijacked the other post [sheepish grin] - I read "undergrad in the lab" and was at the mercy of the flashbacks.

    1. How valid is the "hijacking the thread" argument anymore, with replies to comments now in an indented hierarchy? I think there's a lot to be said for the ability to follow ideas wherever they may lead.

      And yes, I've also had utterly ham-fisted students, to whom I scream, "NO, don't touch that, DON'T TOUCH THAT---AWW, SHIT!" Mine seem to work their magic invariably at the beginning of the semester, in order to cause the maximum trouble for everyone. It's never at the end of the semester, after we've taken lots of data and have shifted mainly to writing about the results.

    2. I was once a TA in a course that taught gradflakes how to use some VERY expensive equipment. The prof and I would routinely grab a particular gradflakes hands as they always wanted to turn knobs without thinking. This same gradflake is the only student I have had start a fire in a lab...

  4. This is what happens when students are encouraged to view themselves as customers -- and us, by extension, as the hired help.

    And yes, it definitely deserved a post of its own.

  5. Too many stories, too little time to write, and some of them would probably out me. I can tell you of a gradflake who "wasn't working out" and who moved on to a better position at a local chemical firm. A month later, an explosion took out part of a wall there.