Avoiding and resolving negative vibes

Our lab moved to the Institute last Fall. Actually, the entire floor did. Which of course means that everybody is looking for everything and nobody knows what goes where. This is slowly getting better.

Somehow, our lab managed to quickly gain the reputation of messy lab. Which I find kind of annoying, as I always try to be considerate and keep the communal areas clean. No matter how chaotic my bench and fridge spaces always are;  I keep the shared spaces tidy. There are a number of people in our lab though who see that differently…

Me, together with two colleagues, have been tidying up after them for a while. But at the time pointing that out to them – asking them if maybe they didn’t know where to get rid of certain chemicals and that’s why they didn’t do it? Turns out that that was too optimistic. They keep doing what they want whenever they want; leaving a trail of things for others to deal with.

In meantime, I’ve managed to get on pretty good speaking terms with all of the labs we share spaces with. And they somehow keep complaining to me about those colleagues. For a while, I apologised for them and kind of joined in the gossip how annoying behaviour X is. Last Tuesday, I somehow decided I’m fed up with this nonsense.

The main problem is, in my opinion, that we don’t have rules for cleaning our facilities. So nobody cleans anything. Which means we had some fungi growing in our sterile (!) workspace. A girl of one of the other labs sent an email she’s going to clean and looking for help; would be good if the person currently using the space could help. Turns out to be one from our lab, who goes there, collects his experiment, and takes off. Without offering to help. I again apologised for his behaviour, even though I guess I shouldn’t.

Our boss hates cleaning schedules, which is one of the reasons we don’t have one yet. The boss of the other lab, who also happens to be our bosses boss and our institute’s director, only said he will accommodate whatever the lab wants. Knowing that he will support his people, that they want a cleaning schedule and so do I, I sent out an email to them and to my lab to discuss things informally over a cup of coffee.

It was so embarrassing! The entire director’s lab turned up! And from my lab only one besides me… They just don’t care! But anyway, the others are happy I at least acknowledge the problem and took the initiative to solve it. We discussed what exactly the problems are and how we think we can solve them – without being able to change people (who of course did not attend this meeting…). Written up some minutes of the “meeting”. And guess what? Two days later, the rooms are already better.

Our lab manager sent me an email to say that this has been the most productive meeting so far (without disagreeing bosses…) and that he’s really happy to implement the changes we proposed. Especially because he also knows our own boss is against it, but knowing that we have the director’s support, our boss won’t complain. Hopefully, this will do our reputation some good and will give the others less cause to complain about us…

So yeah… What I basically want to say: if there’s something that’s annoying you, stop talking about it but try to change it. Don’t support the gossip but tackle the causes of the problems. Makes for a lot nicer environment :) (although I still don’t know how to tackle the problem of the colleagues who think they’re living for themselves alone…)

A drunk boss at a conference

“You motherfuckers, what’s wrong with you??”

This is how one of THE meeting organisers approached the group I was having a chat with. Perplexed, I asked him why he thinks something’s wrong with us?

“Aren’t you that girl with the stupid questions?” (And yeah, there was a girl with also long, dark hair, with really stupid questions, but at his welcome address this guy encouraged all trainees to ask questions…. Bit more tolerance might be good eh?). But no, that wasn’t me and I told him so – deciding to ignore my indignation at the motherfuckers part of his sentence. “Yeah, yeah, we know you aren’t”, (then why ask?) “but who are you then”? He figured he should introduce himself and gave me the name of one of his postdocs. I shook his hand said and said as sarcastically as I could “how great it is to meet you, <his name>. Is <postdoc> so cool you wanna be him, or is it just because he’s younger?” 

Don’t think he wanted any resistance, or maybe wasn’t expecting it from a lowly postdoc… And thus turned back to his group, without even trying to ask my name. “We’re going to town now for drinks, who’s driving?” And, pointing at one of them holding a beer, “you have your car with you, right”? The guy started replying, but before finishing, he got interrupted by “I don’t care about you, you know that, you are gonna drive”. What?! My boss saying I don’t care about you right in my face?! And from the lack of reaction from all of them, I felt like this was something that wasn’t too unusual.

Turning back to me and a friend of mine, “you are coming too right”. I replied with a simple no. In my head a thousand reasons, such as not liking to be spoken to as aggressively as he did, I don’t do drink&drive, I’m having fun where I am etc. “You can’t refuse you know”. I didn’t even bother to try to talk to him, I just kept repeating that I’m not coming. The guy he wanted to drive had in meantime grabbed his chance and disappeared, pulling along one of his colleagues.

Interestingly, the guy now turned to the senior female PI standing in our little circle, who had observed this silently. He told her she had to come, because she’s local and could tell them where to go. She calmly refused and added that she would advise anyone against going there – the roads were apparently all unlit and dangerous. He didn’t accept a no from her at once either and kept slinging arguments at us. Like, we wouldn’t want to miss this, we would regret not coming in the morning etc. At some point, he realised we were going to stick with our no and he left with the people who wanted to come – mainly only his own postdocs.

As soon as they had left, the postdoc who disappeared popped out from behind a tree. I looked around pretty confused and asked them if this had just really happened? The postdoc looked really embarrassed and said “you know, I don’t know if it’s up to me to apologise for the behaviour of my boss, but I’m really sorry you had to witness this”! Imagine that, postdoc apologising for boss – and not even for what happened, but just for seeing it. He then said he had pulled away the other guy, as he would certainly have not dared to refuse and would have stepped behind the steering wheel, even after obviously drinking too much already. The senior PI added that he always behaved a bit off when he had had too much alcohol. She agreed that this guy was indeed putting a lot of pressure on people, but added that they could all have said no like we did. Which left me even more dumbstruck than before – were they actually implying that this happened regularly or was normal, maybe once you got used to it?? And this thing about saying no, I have to disagree. The people who went with him were almost all Asian. Correct me when I’m wrong, but I think in their culture it’s very difficult if not impossible to just say no to your boss…

It took a long time before I finally fell asleep that night. Wondering whether I should talk to him about this in the morning, to tell him how absolutely horrendous his behaviour was. But then again, I’m at the start of my career and this guy has a LOT of friends. If anything, the senior PI should take action.

And I couldn’t help but wonder about his postdocs. I am sure he treats them like shit. They are nothing to him. However, after thinking this over and over again, I decided I cannot carry the world on my shoulders. It’s up to them to either stand up against it or leave this toxic environment. I hope they will sooner rather than later :( I’ll just hope that there’ll be a moment where I am strong enough and not as dependent so I can take action against things like this… If I had been this senior PI, I would have definitely called this guy on his behaviour on the spot.

(Next morning, someone told me how he had been groping at the girls that joined him that night and I was just SO incredibly happy I didn’t go there… Those poor girls who didn’t dare to refuse to come along, probably didn’t dare to tell him off for getting too close either.. Yikes! So many wrongs I still feel like I should DO something, but I just don’t know what…)

Why Dr.K. is super excited at the moment

1. I am going to New York tomorrow. The first time I’ll visit the States. Ever. And I’ll have to travel there alone, although I will meet some friends there later on. Being born in a small city, having lived mostly in places without any metro at all where you could walk from one side of town to the other in half a day, I am both very excited and a little nervous. Since I won’t be giving a talk at the conference I am going to, I decided I’ll leave my laptop at home and keep answering mails to the basics on my phone and really focus on the couple of days off and then on the meeting itself. That means I won’t be posting anything on here for a while I think!

2. I managed to catch our lab manager completely off-guard this morning – in a good way. Today was his birthday and he didn’t really mention it. He has told me however how crappy his previous two postdoc labs were and I could imagine how crappy his birthdays have been there. Luckily, I learned that it is tradition here not to bring cake for your birthday, but to get some from your colleagues.. So I forced my colleagues to contribute towards a present, made an apple pie and smuggled in some ice cream. Set it all up in the common room and herded my colleagues (and boss!) all there and asked one of them to go get him without revealing the surprise – instead he told him to drop everything because the boss needed him really urgently… We lit the candles on the cake in meantime. You should have seen the surprise. This is the closest I’ve seen any of the British in our lab to actually showing emotion. I am still enjoying it, half a day later. These are exactly the small things that make life so much more pleasurable :)

3. My body decided to have the monthlies a couple of days early – which means I won’t have the hassle on the 8 hour flight as I thought I would. Some times, you just have to get lucky I guess!

So yeah, I am happy and ready for action. Off to pack my bags now – let’s see how many pairs of shoes I can stuff in there ;)