Original artwork by Pete Jeffs - www.peterjeffsart.com

Original artwork by Pete Jeffs - www.peterjeffsart.com

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.

Just keep going.

No feeling is final.

Hey there! I hope you're holding up. While I would like you to think that I am sufficiently erudite to quote the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke from memory, I read this before the credits at the end of ‘Jojo Rabbit.’ It's a pretty wonderful movie, and cathartic in these troubled, pandemic times. As is the quote. So, there you go.

Catharsis. From the Latinized katharsis of the Greek kathairein, meaning ‘to cleanse or purge.’ There seems to be a lot of it going around, as we distract ourselves with books and films, in our on-line ‘meetings,’ in our immersion in our science (generally, I don't think of doing science as cathartic, but I'm definitely getting that these days). And about those virtual meetings: usually I'm talking with colleagues (around the world) who are isolating at home during this pandemic, but I am frequently surprised to see many who appear to be isolating in their offices at work. Maybe things are too hectic at home (but I know that most of these colleagues I'm seeing don't have kids). I'm sure they are taking all precautions, but still, there is risk. Maybe not where you are (oh, lucky you), but definitely where I am. I'm not entirely sure what this is about. Does it feel more, I don't know, ‘work-y’?

I was discussing this with my wonderful colleagues Red Fox, Dolphin, and Quokka in one of our weekly ‘meetings,’ and yes, we are all isolating at home. Red Fox told me that I should look into a growing meme, that of toxic PIs, something I didn't know about. Probably, she told me, because I'm old. But I did know what a meme is. In fact, I told her, I knew about memes a long time ago, because I read ‘The Selfish Gene,’ by Richard Dawkins, when I was a grad student, and he had not only introduced the concept, but actually named it. That book is very much worth reading, if you haven't, and also read his ‘The Extended Phenotype.’ “Stay on topic, Mole,” she says. Oh, right. Toxic PIs.

By PIs, I am, of course, talking about principal investigators, like me (and perhaps you) who run labs and whose job it is to train scientists, do research, and secure funding to do the other bits. Most of the world, though, thinks ‘PIs’ are private investigators, whose job on television is to solve murders and crimes, and (depending on the show) expose infidelities, but who, in real life, generally work for lawyers to obtain information, often financial, that is beneficial to one side of a case. Less ‘The Big Sleep,’ and more ‘The Big Short.’ “Stay on topic,” says Dolphin. Oh, right.

Toxic PIs. These are the folks who ruin trainees’ lives, cajoling them into their labs with implications of high impact publications, and then enslaving them at the bench. There is a lot of discussion of this going on, so sure, let's talk about it. I don't know if any of the folks I'm seeing who are being all ‘work-y’ in their offices are toxic. I know of one who I really don't think is, but how can I know? And how can you know before you join such a lab? Here are some good ways to find out. Later, maybe we'll talk about what to do if you find yourself in such a situation. So, let's call this ‘Mole's guide to toxic PIs, and how to avoid them.’

The Shark

This is a pretty common sort of toxic PI, and one of the most dangerous. Sharks are very productive, publishing lots of papers in journals with nice, soft pages, or ones with lovely, shiny ones. (By ‘pages,’ I am referring to the print form. This used to be how we read all of our journals, but that was then. I don't know what the electronic equivalents of ‘nice, soft’ and ‘lovely, shiny’ are, but I think you know what I mean. ‘Crosby, Stills, and Nash,’ if you prefer.) You want these pages, and you know that it will be a tough place to work, but you reckon it will be worth it. And then, after a couple of years, you come to talk to me (and yes, I have this conversation much too often) and ask me what to do, but please don't say anything to my PI.

Not all successful scientists are Sharks, indeed, most very successful ones I know are not. But some definitely are (and while I am not referring to my friend Professor Shark, he might well be). It's important here to distinguish the Shark from successful PIs who are focused, for now, on the work of one or two trainees whose work is approaching publication, to the temporary exclusion of others in the lab. This is natural (and indeed, often necessary; there are only so many hours in the day), and not toxic. It becomes toxic when the PI simply does not care about unsuccessful trainees, and even the successful ones are less important than the status that comes from the publication, edifying the PI.

Sharks have to constantly move forward to survive, and they will ignore small, unsuccessful trainees while eating the big, successful ones. It's what they do. And this leads to one of the most important ways to recognize them. If they have been at this for more than a few years (and most Sharks have), what are their previous trainees doing? How successful are they? I have found that while Sharks do occasionally train scientists who go on to be successful, the majority do not. There are several good reasons for this, but I think that a major one is that the Shark-like behavior they learn under the Shark's mentorship simply does not work for a junior PI. If you work hard for a Shark, yes, you may indeed publish a paper in C, S or N (there is no Y?), but you may not get to be the sort of scientist I hope you want to be.

To avoid a Shark, find out about the alumni and where they are. Research the first authors of some of the (presumably many) high impact papers, and track their career development. Talk to the people in the lab. Ideally, identify people who are willing to talk to you away from the lab. Listen, not only to what they say, but also to what they don't say. As with the other types of toxic PIs, you have to do your homework.

The Master of the Universe

The Master of the Universe (MOTU) is always right. When they are wrong, see the last sentence. The MOTU knows the results of an experiment before it is done, and generally will not let negative results sway them from this knowledge. MOTUs can be especially dangerous, and to understand why, it is useful to know how they became MOTUs. Often this occurs because they have been right, not once, but a number of times, and in succession. There are a couple of reasons why this might have happened. Most likely, it is because they are very smart, read a lot, and see a pattern in the literature that points to an important discovery. But here's the thing: even the most carefully reasoned prediction is correct only some percentage of the time (even if that percentage, for some, is pretty high). And if many of us are making predictions, some will simply get lucky and will get a ‘yes’ from their experiments again and again. Until they don't. Think of all of us flipping a coin; if there are enough of us, someone will get ‘heads’ five times in a row. The odds that the next coin flip for that person will be ‘heads’ remain 50%. That's fine, unless the person has become a MOTU by the fifth coin toss. The MOTU will say the coin was wrong.

MOTUs are angry at trainees whose experiments do not come out as they must. They reward only those who support their ideas. This can lead to an environment in which ‘fudging’ results, or even faking them, emerges from the dark corners where such things live. At the least, the trainees will cherry-pick their results to conform to the prediction. These trainees become so disillusioned that they may even believe their incorrect data, because, like the MOTU, they know that the prediction must be true.

You can identify and avoid a MOTU in several ways. As with the Shark, research the alumni and talk to the lab. And talk to others in the department; have there been investigations of misconduct? These happen, even to honest PIs, but not frequently, and if baseless they should not deter you. But if there have been several such allegations, it may be a red flag that this is a MOTU. (I was going to go into detours to discuss the terms ‘cherry-pick’ and ‘red flag,’ but Quokka told me to, “Stay on topic, Mole.” Right. Toxic PIs.)

I'll be back with the rest of the list. We'll meet The Sloth, The Santa, and The Fallen Star. But that's for next time. And for those of you who find yourself in this terrible situation, we'll get there. But for now, read the Rilke lines. Or better still, watch ‘Jojo Rabbit.’ It's cathartic.