Thursday, February 28, 2008

Seminar thoughts

RPM had a delightful post about the people you’d see at a departmental seminar. A good part of any academic’s life would have been spent listening to someone give a seminar on some topic. RPM clearly enjoys observing the people in the seminar, instead of paying attention to whatever was being said by the speakers. But it is just as entertaining to observe and form (exaggerated, biased or irrelevant) opinions of the seminar speaker. There are different types of speakers and most of them probably fall somewhere in one of these categories.

Animatedly excited (a.k.a. “This is so cool”) speaker : Lets face it. Most scientists are inordinately fond of their research. Everything else in the world (global warming, tsunamis, earthquakes, Paris Hilton) is less important. But while giving a seminar, they try to control their excitement. Not so the “This is so cool” speaker. Every sentence of theirs ends with an exclamation! Every little gel they run or PCR they do is fantastic! Good lord, why are we even listening to their talk?! We should just give them that Nobel!

Data? Pshaw! Here’s a schematic: There are some speakers who think actual data isn’t worth showing. So their talks are filled with impressive conclusions, schematics (called “cartoons”, not to be confused with Bugs Bunny), predictive models, and an animated PowerPoint movie with impressively shaped molecules flying around. They would have completed an entire one hour seminar showing only one real graph/gel/microscopic image/structure. An argument could be made that the work is already published so we can go and look up their papers to read about it. But why would I sit in a seminar if I wanted to read about something? If the work is still unpublished, all I have to do is go back to my computer and spend the next 6 months searching PubMed everyday hoping those grand models have some data behind them.

You want more data? Here you go: In stark contrast is the data masochist. This speaker decides to smack the audience with every published, publishable and unpublishable result his/her lab would ever get. This means you are subjected to six slides showing the same result tested in a dozen ways. At the end of the seminar you have no idea what the big idea behind the work was. But you might have caught up on your sleep.

I’m so good I can fit four seminars in one: This is data masochist version II. In this case he/she doesn’t talk about fifty ways to do one experiment, but decides to talk about every single project going on in his/her lab. Since the audience typically consists of rookie grad students who want to learn but have attention deficit disorder, veteran grad students who come only for the free food, a scattering of students, postdocs and faculty who just want to hear one cool story, and precisely 2.1 diehards who want to know everything, their effort only serves to annoy. Half the audience is comatose after story number three (at 40 minutes) and will willingly part with their firstborn when the speaker starts story number four, just to get him/her to stop. When the final story (number six) starts, at breakneck speed, there is almost an audible sigh of relief from the audience as the slides whiz by fast enough to make Roddick’s serve look geriatric. Sometimes, somewhere in between the seminar, the irritable grand old scientist of the department walks out, leading to a massive audience efflux and much embarrassment to the speaker and his/her host.

My other job is singing lullabies: This is the speaker who probably dreamt of being an NPR radio host, but ended up in academia instead (every one knows the surest way of putting a baby to sleep is turning on National Public Radio). You enter the seminar hall, the lights are dimmed, and then the soothing monotone starts. There isn’t the slightest hint of emotion, the slightest blemish or stammer. The volume is just perfect. You fight to stay up but the force is too strong. You leave the seminar hall and your red-eyed colleague asks you what you thought of the seminar. You’re forced to answer “It was pretty good….what did you think”, and aforementioned colleague will be forced to answer “Oh yeah” and then look at his watch and pretend to have to be elsewhere.

We discovered everything: Seminar speaker gives long introduction. Seminar speaker cites earlier known work, ALL of which was done in his/her lab. Seminar speaker gives talk about the great breakthroughs that are currently coming out of lab. Heck, as far as seminar speaker goes, his/her area of research has just one lab doing research on it. No one else exists. When questions are asked at the end of the seminar, all answers begin with “we’ve shown that….blah….” and end with “….we are currently doing that…blah.” The rest of us should just roll over and become technicians. The speaker probably discovered gravity and the moon as well.

I’m so famous I can make up anything: This kind of seminar speaker is sometimes outrageously entertaining. They show a little piece of data (or sometimes hypothesize that data), and then draw a very long line to an outrageous claim. Something that just about everyone in the audience (except some naïve, gullible, wet-behind-the-ears first year graduate student) knows is bovine excreta but no one calls it, because speaker is “Mr. famous scientist”. Then naïve, gullible first year graduate student writes a qualifier proposal based on “Mr. famous scientist’s” BS, and his/her committee rips it to shreds, leaving the kid in tears.

Any more speaker types?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Alumni and their institutions

It is hard not to be impressed by the philanthropic contributions of alumni to the universities they have attended, particularly in America. Most universities routinely raise millions of dollars from former students, who contribute towards setting up new ventures, establishing resource centers or labs, endowing professorships or scholarships and so on. In addition, the various alumni associations remain in close contact with the parent university, being involved in just about everything from football and basketball games to campaigns and expansion efforts. In contrast, the involvement or philanthropic contributions of alumni to academic institutions in India remain relatively miniscule. There certainly are a number of bureaucratic or legislative reasons for that, as is typical in India. But I think there might be something more (at least for me).

I started thinking about it after I received an email recently from the center for alumni affairs from my old undergrad institution. It was a typical email written in the typical style of an Indian bureaucrat. It started by calling the present vice chancellor of the university a “great visionary”, and then claimed how wonderful an education and research institute the university was, and then pointing me towards an effort to get the alumni more involved with their contributions towards the university.

There’s nothing wrong in that. Except that, upon a little reflection, I don’t think I would particularly want to do anything for my undergraduate college. In stark contrast, if I do reach a stage in my life when I can make a philanthropic contribution or contribute otherwise to my old high school, or to my graduate school or any other institution I’ve been associated with, I am very likely to do so. But why is that?

I have fond memories of college. I didn’t love every moment of it, but it certainly was a fun time during some very important years in my life. While growing as a person, I made some good friends, found a few good faculty mentors, and managed to acquire some knowledge in the process. But, as I think about it now, those were things I would have had in any university. Those friends or the handful of faculty who influenced me remain important, but while I associate them with my time in the university, I don’t associate the university itself with them. Somehow, as I thought about this email I received, I started to realize why.

Let me explain. Those college years are very important to most people. They are right in those formative years, where knowledge is acquired, horizons and perspectives broadened and important life and career choices are made. Students have just emerged from high school, and are now young adults with the government given right to drive, drink or vote in the next general election, using their own discretion. They are full of energy and purpose, looking for encouragement and direction. At least that was how I looked at it.

But unfortunately, at least in my old institution (which was typical of most government/state institutes in India, which are the “top” universities in the country) provided everything but that. Instead of a world of knowledge and ideas, I went to a world of rules and bureaucracy, full of petty minds and narrow thoughts. The general attitude of a large section of the staff and faculty was largely unhelpful, and one of extreme hierarchy and authority. To get the smallest of jobs done, one would have to beg, flatter and plead repeatedly over weeks or months sometimes. Instead of giving the students the freedom to attend the classes they wanted to, there was a strict, mandatory attendance policy (of 90% of the classes each year). This was irrespective of whether the student learnt anything in class or not. Failure to attend class (even if you aced the tests) would mean having to repeat the course. That of course had nothing to do with class participation, since many faculty hated students who dared to question. Many courses were extremely uninteresting, and were taught by incompetent lecturers incapable of thinking beyond the textbook (or with lecture notes that hadn’t been updated for 20 years). What’s more, some faculty remained particularly narrow minded, and the rules would put some military schools to shame. These rules would range from attempted “dress codes” through faculty taking offense at students chatting outside their classes in the hallway, to “bans” on cell phones or rules discouraging people of opposite sex from any sort of interaction (yup, in college), or denying use of university computers or the internet. At the end of the college years, students would have to run from pillar to post to get their academic transcripts (sometimes pleading with the staff to issue them one), and would be required to get this ridiculous document called a “character certificate” (which is still required when applying for graduate school or government jobs in India. The purpose it serves remains a mystery). At the end of four years of college, the student receive everything but a broad, liberal education, in spite of being amongst the brightest and most self motivated students in the country. While most students would miss their college friends and life, I think only a few would actually miss their college itself. There may even be a slight feeling of bitterness against the college as they leave.

Cut to ten or twenty years later. Many students who have passed out are now extremely successful. Some have managed to reach fairly enviable levels of affluence. At this stage they are quite ready to make some philanthropic contributions. But even if they do want to support students in their old institutions, they know that they will have to go through that wall of bureaucrats or faculty who will continue to treat students like little children, throwing about their rules and ideas. The very thought of interacting with those old staff or professors who made their lives miserable years ago is distasteful (at least for me). I wouldn’t want to, say, contribute to a research center knowing that it would be under the control of these people. So, while it may seem a little petty on my part, those are my thoughts. I just wouldn’t want to be associated with them in any way, and many of these reasons remain intangible.

But perhaps I’m completely mistaken, and this reason, this subconscious holding-back, isn’t really a common factor at all. Any thoughts?

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

An illusionary sense of superiority

In a utopian world science would be perfectly egalitarian, and only the quality of the science itself would matter. But of course, human nature takes its toll on most things, and our inherent tendency to proclaim or feel superiority on the silliest of premises sometimes takes over. So, just like in almost every other profession, pedigree is (unfortunately) awarded what I think is a very high premium. But sometimes some small minds with bloated egos take it one step too far.

A few little incidents I witnessed reminded me of an interview of an extremely pompous Indian politician (I cannot remember his name) by the prominent (and pompous) Indian television commentator Karan Thapar which I happened to see (a year or so ago). I don’t remember the exact context where this topic came about, but the politician somewhere in the interview declared that he was “much better” than Thapar. Thapar, incredulous that anyone could conceivably be better than him, asked “how so”? The politician asked Thapar where he had been educated, and Thapar, with the glint of old boy pride in his eyes, said he’d studied in Doon school followed by degrees from Cambridge and Oxford. Pompous politician whose name I can’t remember says “Aha! I am better” and then says he studied at “some other prestigious school” followed by degrees from Harvard and Wharton or some such, and therefore he was better than Thapar.

That was just about the silliest argument I had ever heard.

But coming back to my little world of science, it seems there isn’t a significant shortage of such similarly bloated egos either. Here are some select stories:

A very bright graduate student friend of mine told me this incident. Some years ago, while interviewing for graduate school, she had interviewed at some of the top schools in the US. For various reasons important to her, she turned down some big name schools like Stanford, Berkeley, Yale, Johns Hopkins and a few others to decide to come here for her PhD. That was her choice. A year or so ago, she runs into another student who is now in Hopkins at some meeting. Now this student had interviewed in Hopkins at the same time as my friend, and they remembered each other. So their conversation naturally goes towards what they are doing. That girl asks my friend where she decided to go for her PhD and my friend tells her that she’s in Texas.

The other girl, in all sincerity, says “Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know you didn’t get into Hopkins”.

Friend rolls eyes in astonishment and walks away.

(I wonder how much this story would hurt some of the big egos here in Dallas, since after all, by some measures, this place ranks as the “number 1 research institution in the US” in some disciplines. These egos aren’t exclusive to “big name schools” in the east coast, though there seems to be a little bit more out there).

If you’ve decided that it was just an immature graduate student with some air of superiority, here’s a good story from faculty.

Another friend was doing a PhD in a small but respected school in the US. Her own graduate school efforts, by all measures, were exceptional. Most students in big name institutes don’t have the quality of publications my friend managed in a small school. While interviewing for postdocs, my friend also wrote to some researcher Y in a very big name institute on the North East coast (Yale). X was still in grad school at the time. Anyway, Y decides to call my friend up at some 8 am in the morning (anyone with brains would know that 8 am is a terrible time to call a grad student), on friend’s cell phone. Naturally there is no response. So, bloated ego Y decides to call my friend’s PhD advisor Z up to converse. Z at first politely talks to Y, and then Y starts asking Z if Z even knew whether my friend ever came to the lab, what kind of student my friend was, whether my friend was the least bit interested in research and so on. Z somehow managed to speak politely, and then Y goes on to question Z’s research credentials. Y goes on and says something about how people in “small schools” don’t know what research is all about, and then offers to fly down my friend for an interview just so that my friend can “visit Yale, and see how real research is done at a real research institute”.

Luckily that was the last straw for Z, who (still) politely but firmly put Y in her place, and told Y to take a hike, because there was just about no way my friend would ever do a postdoc with Y anymore, or bother to “visit” Yale.

There are many more such stories of course. In my more naïve past I might have been guilty of one or two such moments of snootiness myself (and I am thoroughly ashamed of those moments now). More recently, I’ve been at scientific meetings, where some people from “big name institutes” only talk to others from what they deem to be suitably equivalent institutes. The silliness often permeates to the job market as well, and it can be easier for an absolutely incompetent idiot from Harvard to find a job than it is for a very talented student from a small Midwestern institute (ahem…..Bush went to Yale and then Harvard). And a person might retain this attitude for years or even decades after passing out of the “famous institute”.

I know a few IITans read this blog. No offense buddies, but perhaps its time to get over it.

(update: it wasn't a pompous politician in that interview with Thapar. It was pompous businessman Rahul Bajaj. Thanks bala)