Short story: Fired

The three of them sit in a semicircle, the Director in the middle, HR to my left and my line manager to my right. Door behind me. Window across, dark with the March dusk and a miserable rain pattering on the double-glazed, soundproof, insulating, corporate glass.

Nature doesn’t usually mark the occasion. Babies are born during hurricanes. Lotteries are won in a blizzard. A guy jumps out of the twentieth floor of his apartment building on a sunny-blue summer day and sprays the warm sidewalk with his brains while seagulls fly above.

Nature doesn’t care.

Someone’s talking and my employee-conditioning kicks in and I pay attention. The Director’s pudgy face contorts in a semi-sad smile and his mouth kickstarts the stage play we are about to engage in by invoking the first line of his managerial script.

“How are you feeling?”

Of course, honesty isn’t expected. Bound by the pseudo-social contract of professional interaction, I also smile sheepishly and mutter something between “okay” and a verbal shrug.

Phase one is over and it’s time for his soliloquy. He speaks in the measured, paced, practised and soft tone of the veteran manager, but when I look up from the table and catch his eyes, all I see is autopilot.

He uses a lot of filler. Words like “performance”, “output”, “competence” and “leverage” fill the air between blow-softening neutrals like “expected”, “observed”, “discussed” and “decided”.

I nod to the music, but I can’t help keeping one eye on my watch. It takes him forty-seven seconds to go through the obligatory spiel, to put me at ease, to avoid conflict, to prevent negotiation, to minimise the chance that I’ll come back tomorrow with a case of home-made Molotov cocktails.

I feel tired. Forty-seven seconds, and then he finally gets to it.

“We all think that it would be better for you to not continue in this role.”

And just like that, the ritual – and my job – is over. Of course, there’s still some epilogue, but the main story has ended. Some live happily ever after. Some others, not so much.

They are expecting some reaction from me. For a moment, I entertain the idea of saying nothing and just staring impassively out the window. Lack of affect. Psychopathy. Scare them a bit. But then that “burn-no-bridges” instinct overcomes me, so I sigh a little and throw on fake stoicism. “Well, some things just don’t work out.”

They all nod, relieved. Whichever of them writes the report on this, they’ll tick the box that says I took it well.

The HR lady rattles off some information about contracts, final payments and paperwork. Then the Director looks at me with managerial puppy eyes and asks, “Is there anything you’d like to say?”

Like that’d make any difference. But I guess they give all the condemned a chance to final words, so I blather something that doesn’t exactly blame Management, but doesn’t exactly absolve them either.

They feel it. My line manager – ex line manager – looks uncomfortable.

Well. At least he’ll have a job tomorrow.

The rest goes fast. They get on with the scripted noise about how they wish me well and that I’ll probably have questions in the next couple of days and shouldn’t hesitate to email them.

Then they take my staff ID card. Of course, they deactivated it before the meeting even started.

The Director stands up and then the rest of us do. I breathe through my nose as my ex line manager storms out of the office without even saying goodbye.

The Director walks me out of the building and tries to pass it off as being friendly. It’s not. Company policy dictates that he has to escort me off the premises. Not a bad idea, actually.

Before I know it, I’m in a taxi on my way home. Five pm, on a rainy Tuesday. When I get home, I don’t turn on the lights. I lock the door behind me, walk into the lounge and sit quietly on the sofa, listening to the rain outside.

For the first time in my life, I’m fired.

Spanish translation

MFPL retreat: From bench to keyboard

A photo of my opening slide by organiser Stephanie Bannister (@S_Bann).

Last week I was invited to speak about science communication at the MFPL retreat at Znojmo (CR). It was great to meet fans of the blog and chat with PhDs and postdocs about comics, cell/molecular biology (the MFPL does some really cool stuff), lab life and science careers.  Once again, I was struck by how rife with problems academic research is, and I hope that this little talk might spark some non-traditional, yet much-needed career paths.

Click here if you’d like to check out my 11-slide PowerPoint.

The Data Knight Rises

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See the previous Data Knight

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Short fiction: What dreams may come

I can’t believe it.

The lab all around me is sparkling. Not just clean – sparkling. The floors are frighteningly free of those colourful stains, long-ingrained into the linoleum. The windows are virtually invisible and the view – oh my, the view! Beautiful green on one side, and a white sandy beach on the other. Oceanic caresses lapping onto the shore and the mellow sound wafting into the ambiance of the lab itself, tangible like a soothing balm.

And then the benches. Spotless. White. And – be still, my heart – fully-stocked. Brand-new pipettes covering the full spectrum of volumes are hanging off an actual commercial holder. Still holding onto that virgin, new pipette smell. And boxes of matching tips – full boxes, mind you, not some used, one-tip-inside affair – perfectly lined up before me, like little disciplined battalions awaiting my marching orders.

And so much more. My eyes can scarcely take it in. A selection of CDs – genuine titles, not disc images scrounged from don’t-ask-don’t-tell torrent sites. Posters on the walls – vivid, relevant, actually helpful signalling cascades, not some vintage SIGMA catalogue centrefold to cover the latest Bunsen burner incident. Regulated lights above – not too dark, not too bright. Anatomic stools. Knee space. Leg space. Space. Plugged-in appliances with electrical testing stickers on the cables. Properly maintained laminar hoods. Filled-in booking forms. Shelves with uniform SOP folders. Equipment from this century – from this year! And all of it, all of it, with my name firmly stencilled on.

My first PCR works. My first Western Blot works. Everything works. I forget what cell contamination looks like. My n’s equal a real three every time, not three out of thirty that “didn’t work”. Negative controls don’t do, while positives, well, they simply do. Test samples in between. My error bars are invisible even in poster-size graphs.

My tip boxes are mysteriously always filled and replaced. Waste and rubbish collected. Glassware is washed and put away. Orders arrive yesterday. Equipment is regularly maintained. My clean, properly labelled lab coat is always on the hanger assigned to me.

Even the PhD students know what they’re doing – wait! The undergrads?! When did they learn how to design an experiment? Properly?

I’m going to faint.

I’m sitting in my well-organised, spacious office, in front of my sparkling new 27-inch iMac. I could use my top-of-the-range PC, but at the moment it’s crunching data. And guess what? I’m writing a paper. Of course. So much good science, it’s got to go somewhere. But this isn’t just any paper – am I seeing right? – it’s a Nature paper. I’m not even 30. My inbox is full of key speaker invitations and collaboration requests, and I think I’ll pick that Bahamas conference – maybe just after that huge one in San Diego.

What’s this? Peer review? From Nature? Oh, it’s alright. All three peers just wanted to congratulate me on “outstanding research, and the cleanest, most innovative science this field has seen in years.” Thanks, guys, my pleasure – and there’s a lot more where that came from.

Of course, I miss spending time in my expanded lab now, but between six postdocs, ten PhDs and five technicians, the lab work’s sorted. I just sit back and watch the data roll in. Meanwhile, I have to decide how to best divide the new grant we just won. Or alternatively – I lean back on my comfy, anatomic chair- how best to begin that review that Science asked me to write for them. Or maybe I’ll leave that and prepare for the NewScientist interview… oh, I don’t know. A barefoot walk on the beach will help me decide. Watch the sunset and reflect on how fruitful, productive, and fulfilling my career in science has –

– whoa! I must ’ve leaned back way too far and my arms and legs flail about comically and then – hey! – I’m falling, and as I look down I see a semi-dark, kaleidoscopically stained floor come up fast and I hear my plastic stool fly off ahead of me and it knocks a quarter-full tip box off the overcrowded bench and it spills my last batch of yellow tips into the glassware that’s precariously balancing in the brim-full sink.

That’s when my elusive supervisor walks in – first time I’ve seen him in seven weeks – and looks at me, miserable, in my ragged lab coat, laying on the floor.

“Don’t worry”, he says. “Difficulties in research only make us better scientists. I have every confidence and faith that one day you will be an outstanding researcher and a great PI.”

I blink. “Prof?”

And then I woke up.

Academic career progression

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