Well the emails have poured in, and I must say I'm very, very proud of you. Although I'm afraid that I'm much too busy to respond to all of you, my crack team of trained email handlers (mostly named Brad) will answer all of your questions in due course. In the mean time, I will attempt to answer the most pressing questions here in this and some future columns.
Perhaps you can help me. I was pestered, coerced, cajoled, bothered and bugged to come to a university that will remain unnamed (Harvard) and was shuttled from office to office where my hosts had me sit reading the titles of books on their shelves while they took phone calls until the visit was done. I was then offered sandwiches with the grad students, who took all the best ones and had nothing to offer conversationally, and then shuttled into more offices to read the various society acknowledgements on their walls. I gave a talk that was well received except for the snoring, and then had dinner with a junior faculty member who wanted a free meal. My question is, why do we do this?
Jetlagged in Jorgen
First of all, we do it because it's such an honor, and the money is great (I mean, hey, it usually translates into tens of dollars an hour; okay, probably a bit less). But really there are some things you can do here. First, about sleeping at your seminar, two things: maybe you can make your seminar a bit more interesting. But if the professor in the front row falls asleep anyway, then you have to gently approach him, ease him up from his seat and out the door while he's still sleepy, and say, “Okeedokee big guy, lets get you to bed” and leave him blinking in the hallway. When you're in an office and your host takes a phone call. Just walk away, politely saying, “Ah, I see you're busy.” At the grad student lunch, immediately take all of the sandwiches and then offer them to anyone who can tell you anything fascinating. Brownies work well for this too. And most likely you get to eat them all yourself. Finally, you choose the wine at dinner. So the real answer to the question is: revenge. Field trips can be fun if you have the right attitude. And you won't be asked back.
How do I come up with a good project for my PhD thesis?
Six Years and Counting in Seattle
I'm so pleased that you came to me. Really, it's very easy. Go to the library (the real one, not the one on your browser) and pull down any volume from a reasonably good journal that is dated prior to 1986. Nothing prior to that time counts as scientific literature, especially if it doesn't come up in a PubMed search. Now just choose the articles that you think look interesting and do the experiments again; they provide instructions right in the papers — this was something they used to do in those days. When you write it up, you might want to use different words rather than copying large bits of the original paper, but this doesn't appear to be strictly necessary.
Okay, it really ticks me off that I get these kits from MoBi companies and they don't work, and then the company sends an email like three weeks later and says, oh, sorry, we didn't actually include the right enzyme; so sorry that you like wasted your whole graduate career trying to make it work, but we'll give you another kit free if I send back the unused part, and then I wait for like forever. So how can I get back at them?
Ticked in Tucson
Return each defective kit with a fish in it. They will understand the consequences of not opening their mail promptly.
By the way, I enjoyed your note — I take it from your style that you've reviewed a lot of my papers.
I've developed an important animal model (well, `technically' it's a plant, but it bites) for a devastating and economically critical human disease that I'm having trouble identifying. What is the correct term for the human disease that involves losing all your root hairs?
Photosynthesizing in Philly
This disease is not uncommon, as you say, and also vitally important, both in terms of money and human suffering. It is pathomimicofundingacea, the compulsive effort to convert every interesting phenomenon into a model for a human disease in order to get the big bucks. The suffering is the grant reviewers'. But, hey, go for it. Pathomimicofundingacea is not unique to biology; subatomic physics, computer science, math, astronomy and soil chemistry all have examples. On the other hand, it behooves us real disease modelers not to gloat. The fact is, almost none of our models are bona fide models of human diseases — except, of course, mine. Meanwhile, I'm going to go check my root hairs.
Recently, I went online to check a catalogue number at a chemical supplier and had to submit my email address in order to get in. Now I am receiving dozens of emails from peptide and oligonucleotide synthesizers, array services, antibody merchants, body parts salesmen, and on and on. It's biospam. What do I do?
Buried at Baylor
Biospam is an important new problem that we, at Mole Laboratories, have been working on for tens of minutes. I'm delighted to tell you, though, that we have reached a solution. It turns out, the biospammers are not nearly as technically sophisticated as real spammers — they are mere babes in e-space. The way to get them to stop is to simply go to the original website and attempt to get a price quote. When asked to register, do so, but use the email address of one of the spammers. Do this for each biospam address you have. In less than an hour you will have run the system into a feed-forward, self-referential, auto-accelerating do-loop. The result is that you will most likely crash all of their systems, teaching them the hard way the cost of going head to head with technically sophisticated individuals such as yourself. However, there is a small but real possibility that the feed-forward, self-referential, auto-accelerating do-loop will spontaneously convolute into an emergent consciousness that will destroy the world or attempt to sell you new website domains. But this hardly ever happens.
I developed my western with a commercial antibody that is supposed to be specific for p46. The bands I got were 22, 29, 55, 78 and 115 kDa. Which of these are p46? I asked the company, but they say that they never actually check the antibodies on proteins.
Harried in Hawaii
They are all p46, by definition — except the bands you don't want to be there. I used to argue with scientists who put all of their faith in the claims of the suppliers, and foolishly suggested that they do the quality control themselves in the form of controls. Since then, I have seen the error of my ways. A good antibody can provide any result you need. I am particularly fond of the antibodies that detect proteins of genes that don't exist in the species with which they crossreact. Similar antibodies are sold with fluorescent markers so that you can detect cell populations that may or may not be there, even if you don't have any cells. Ultimately, it is my hope that we will have antibodies that when reacted with the blot, form publishable text describing the results. I hear there are several in development.
Did you know that if you put liquid nitrogen into your shoes and then drop them from a second floor window, they will shatter?
Curious in Curacao
Now that's what I'm talking about! This is the sort of searching, innovative questioning of the universe we need to drive science forward. I mean, carefully and slowly and once it is reproduced a number of times. It turns out it's even better from the third floor.
How do I get my own column?
Rodent-envy at Rutgers
Wait until you have something really important to say, and then do something like this, despite it.
That's it for now, but I promise that I'll get to the others soon, with useful tips on dealing with telemarketers, bad buffers, labmates who leave detritus fields, and complex solutions for ever more complex problems.