Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Maintaining Decorum

My graduate program holds two poster sessions each year, one during the recruitment season, the other in fall. The purpose is to provide opportunities for students to present their work, and to catch up on what their classmates are doing. Usually, only faculty and students affiliated with the program and prospective students attend these, but occasionally faculty will send a postdoc to represent the lab if they are not available. One of these representatives visited my poster at the recent session, and it was quite an eye opening experience.

First, he sort of swooped over to my poster, pointed at one of the figures, and said, “I recently heard a talk by Dr. Big Name, and I was under the impression that any questions on this topic had been completely answered by his recent paper.” [Translation: you are wasting your time doing this work. Someone more famous than you has already planted a flag, so you don’t stand a chance.] To which I replied, “I think you must be mistaken. They are not working on the same system.” [Commentary: my PI was a postdoc in Dr. Big Name’s lab, and developed the assay that both labs use. I also rotated in Dr. Big Name’s lab, and am friendly with current and past members of the lab. If I was in danger of being scooped, I’d definitely know it.] It turned out that he did not understand the not-so-subtle differences between my work and the work Dr. Big Name had talked about, and we spent quite some time sorting that out. He would tell me he didn’t understand what I was measuring in a control, for instance, and I would answer him, thinking that he didn’t understand some technical aspect of how the measurement was done. He’d ask something else, and then come back to the control, until, after several cycles, I realized that he didn’t even understand at a basic level what I was measuring, because he hadn’t bothered to read it on the poster or ask before diving in.

Once we got that sorted, he paused, then began to ask questions about some background material I’d included on the poster, for the benefit of people who are not familiar with the theory that provides the rationale for part of my work. He claimed to be familiar with it, since he had heard Dr. Big Name’s talk on the topic [Commentary: Dr. Big Name is not a theoretician, and has not done work that contributes significantly to the theoretical treatment of what I study] but seemed not to understand the theory, and asked me why I’d included it on my poster. At this point, I began to get very annoyed. It’s fine to ask questions about the material on a poster, but if I’d wanted his editorial advice on what material to include, I would have done so, when I made the poster. Instead, I chose to get advice from my PI and labmates – who bother to make sure they know what I’m studying before telling me to remove crucial background material.

All that was annoying, but not that unusual. People rush into discussions all the time, and often people misunderstand things when they are not as familiar with a field as they may think (you don’t know what you don’t know, and all that). But I nearly lost my composure in its entirety when this arrogant little prick told me that I should “really consider reading the literature to find out what other people were doing in the field”. I took a deep breath, and, as calmly as possible, said that actually, I had done so. He asked me what I had read. I began to tell him about the theoretical work, both old and new, and that’s as far as I got, because he cut me off, saying, “I don’t think that new theory is worth reading at all.” I quickly shot him down, by telling him what the work was focused on and how it was relevant to my work. He recanted, as if I had twisted his arm. I then mentioned that, since every system would likely display different behavior, there was no benefit to comparing measurements done on different systems. He kind of brushed that off. I mentioned a way that I plan to perturb my system to discover the function of one part, and he first made an ignorant comment that made clear that he did not know about the system at all, and how much research has been done on determining the role of that part, then told me that he didn’t think that it would be interesting to study it in that way because it was not “natural”. At this point, I’m starting to wonder if this guy has ever done an experiment in his life. I explain why it’s necessary to perturb a system, sometimes drastically to figure out the function of all the parts. I also began to cross my arms and stare off into space whenever he spoke. Again, he grudgingly admitted that I may be right, but he just wouldn’t leave.

It went on for a while longer, and, in retrospect, I think I’m glad I didn’t just tell him to fuck off, if for no other reason than that it would have made me look bad. There is nothing wrong with asking challenging questions at a poster session or talk, I’ve done it myself. This can be nerve wracking, but I’ve never become angry or wished someone would just go away because they asked me a difficult question. Nor would I be angry if someone didn’t understand part of the work, and therefore asked irrelevant questions. However, I walked away with the distinct impression that this particular questioner was simply looking for a way to be right and to demonstrate that I was wrong. I have heard that there are people like this in academia, but I’ve never had an encounter like this before. As the session was ending, he finally decided that he’d had enough, but not before saying that one of my interpretations of the results was interesting, but that he was sure someone else had come up with that before. He vowed to search the literature for this. Then he said, “Maybe you will write about that in your paper. Or, maybe I will write something about it.” I just looked at him as he walked away, wondering if I was supposed to be scared. I wish him luck writing that paper on an experiment that he doesn’t understand on the most basic level, without any data, starting from scratch on a project I’ve been working on for over a year. But I guess since he’s read Dr. Big Name’s paper, he’ll have no trouble.

I can’t help but interpret this in terms of gender/race, particularly since I know that this little dip-shit talked to someone else from my lab, who happens to be a man of the same race as the questioner, and though he was challenging, he was not nearly so confrontational. Surprised? I’m not, and it really pisses me off. For the first time I understand why some women/minorities may feel like they don’t want to put up with this kind of shit anymore. It could be pretty demoralizing to, day in and day out get told that you “really should familiarize yourself with the literature” by people who don’t even understand what you are studying. Especially if you also had to watch other people, who are only different in gender or race, regularly get pats on the back. That said, however, I’m not going anywhere. I’m choosing to get angry, instead of letting it wear me down. I’m not backing down in the face of some idiot thinking that he’s smarter than me just because he is part of the favored group. This is science. You have to prove your hypothesis.


EcoGeoFemme said...

Damn, what a self-important jackass!

Rebecca said...

There always seems to be one of those people around, no matter where you go. One time when I was attending this conference, a colleague of mine came up to me during the coffee break, and told me that the majority of people who attended this conference were stupid (wink wink, nudge, nudge -- as if I must think that way too). WTF?!?!

Good for you for standing tall and holding your ground in front of that jackass!

Jenny F. Scientist said...

Definitely good for you, and what a jerk. I think you're nicer than I am: I generally come up with a good Southern, polite way to tell them to take it and shove it. There are a lot of those people here.

acmegirl said...

You know, I can't decide which is nicer - playing along so I can beat him at his own game and grind the remnants of his self-confidence into the ground or just telling him to shove off.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you did a GREAT job of handling it! You should really treat yourself to a reward for it.

Drugmonkey said...

while this may or may not have had anything to do with race or gender, the fact is that you will find these asshats everywhere. Not a huge number, just a persistent trickle. They are first and foremost asshats. that is your only consideration when faced with one. all else (is it my race? my gender? my training level? my competence?) lets them get the upper hand.

first response is simply to amuse yourself phenotyping the specimen.

second is to use this as an opportunity to hone your craft for when you face non-asshat questions.

third, use this as practice in getting past the asshat quickly with your dignity intact. this point is highly relevant for giving seminars and job talks.

acmegirl said...

They are first and foremost asshats. that is your only consideration when faced with one. all else (is it my race? my gender? my training level? my competence?) lets them get the upper hand.

Drugmonkey, I absolutely agree. I really only thought about this after the whole thing was over.

WRT your three reponses, I think I understand and can even imagine how I might employ the first two. The third, however, seems more tricky. It really has two parts - the keeping your dignity in tact, which I think I got in this example, but the getting past the asshat quickly is a little more mysterious to me. If it were a talk, I could imagine saying something like, "Perhaps we could talk about this in more depth later, but now I'd like to continue/answer some other questions." During a poster session, or even a one-on-one or small group discussion, I don't really know an effective way to signal to someone that their turn is over. Any suggestions?

Amanda said...

If this guy is on one end of the bitchiness example, then my question pales in comparison. I'm just appalled that this idiot decided to keep going even after it became apparent that he had no idea what in the world he was talking about. But anyhow, you win! :-)

PhysioProf said...

It went on for a while longer, and, in retrospect, I think I’m glad I didn’t just tell him to fuck off, if for no other reason than that it would have made me look bad.

The way to get rid of fucknozzles like this dude--either at a talk, poster, or group meeting--once a subtle approach is clearly not working is to simply say, "Ah, I see you are either unfamiliar with or misunderstanding some important background here. I'd be happy to help you with it if you contact me later, but this is not the appropriate context."

If he persists, you just keep repeating, "I'm sorry, but this is not an appropriate context for me to help you with that. Please feel free to contact me later."

By making use of your power as the presenter and characterizing it as you "helping" him with his "unfamiliarity" or "misunderstanding", you maintain the upper hand. And once the moment has passed, witnesses will almost certainly not remember the actual scientific content and who was correct; all they'll remember is that some douchehound was unfamiliar with or misunderstanding some important shit.

flickamawa said...

Wow. I totally know of at least one post-doc in my department who would act like that. And I'd be so annoyed. Sounds like you a did a decent job getting through it, and there are lots of great tips in the comments!

OH, how I hate people who just seem to be looking for a way to put you down and pick themselves up as the expert. There is often entirely too much ego in science for my tastes. But I'm still here too.

Zuska said...

Wow, what an ass. You did a great job handling that. I'm sure gender/race did play a role, though maybe not consciously on the asshole's part - that is, he may not even be aware of how and why he responds differently to those like him and those unlike him in gender/race. Doesn't make it any less annoying. The advice from DM and PP is really good. If you are able to get through something like this and not let it get you down then you are doing a really good job for yourself. Cultivate a bit of arrogance, which is a useful thing for any woman in science to have. YOU are the expert on what you are doing and don't ever let anyone tell you otherwise.