Lab Manager


Lab Manager


Q: Okay. So would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you graduated college, as well as how long you’ve actually worked in your current field, if that’s different?


A: Okay. I am the lab manager of a drosophila neuroscience lab at the National Institute of Health. Our institute is the National Institute of Neurological Disease and Stroke, and our unit is the Dendrite Morphology and Plasticity Unit. I’ve been out of grad school for two years, and it’s been about a year that I’ve been at this job.

Q: Okay. And how long has it been since you graduated from undergrad?


A: Graduated from undergrad in 2013, so, yeah.


Q: Perfect. Okay, great. Can you provide just a brief description of your primary job functions?


A: So as lab manager, I’m in charge of– well, primarily I’m in charge of ordering materials, reagents, tools, and all of that. Making sure that I keep tabs of how much of each thing we have so we don’t run out, and part of that is keeping up with all the members of the lab, and figuring out where they are in their product so I can predict what they’ll need in the future. And that kind of goes back and forth with helping them design their experiments, and making sure that they have the tools that they need and they’re using them effectively. So technically I’m number two to the PI, so I’m like her assistant and well, manager. And then because we’re a drosophila lab, a large part of my job is just keeping all of our fly stocks alive.


Q: All of your what alive?

A: Fly stocks.


Q: Oh, okay.


A: So we have a bunch of different, we actually have about 2200 lines of flies – these are different, transgenic flies that have different mutations, and we keep them alive at all times so that we can always draw on them if we need to.


Q: Can you tell me a little bit more just about the general work that happens in that lab? That’s super interesting.


A: Sure. So, we research plasticity. So what we do is we genetically encode green fluorescent protein, mostly, or–GFP or TD Tomato is what I’ve been using, because that’s red – Lisa loves that name [chuckle]. There’s also M Cherry, which is a lighter red than tomato, as you can probably imagine. So we encode these tags onto proteins that already exist in their neurons, so that causes either the whole neuron to light up green, or specific proteins within the neuron to light up green or red, and that way we can take images with our very high-powered microscopes. We use confocal microscopy and two photon microscopy, which are very good machines. A lot of laboratories in my institute, they all share one confocal, but we have one to ourselves, because that’s what we do every day, is imagining. We are all about imaging, all about looking at the morphological changes with the mutants compared to wild type. So we’re investigating how those proteins function and how they lead to plasticity, which is the change in morphology based on different experiences.


Q: Fascinating, okay great! Thank you. How frequently are you required to write? And if it’s possible, could you sort of estimate in an average week maybe what percentage of your job requires writing?


A: Hmm, it varies a lot. Sometimes I’m helping with writing publications, and sometimes I’m writing justifications for large purchases. The more a purchase costs, the more writing is required to get it done. So on average, I probably spend about, I’d say an hour and a half on writing justifications for things, and then on some weeks I’ll be spending twenty or so hours on, if we’re like up against the deadline, and we need to get a publication written, I’ll be helping with that.


Q: So those twenty hours could be up to half your week?


A: Yes.


Q: Okay, gotcha. How long do you typically have to complete a writing project? Obviously that’s going to be really different, the justification as compared to the publication. Maybe you could tell me a little bit about both?


A: Sure. So with purchasing, that varies but, from when we decide we want to buy something to when we get it approved by our purchasing authority, that’s about, we want to keep it to a week, but it can go as long as six months.


Q: Wow, okay. And for scholarly publication, could you tell me just sort of typically what that runs? Like your actual, your piece of that project?


A: My piece of that?


Q: Yeah.


A: Yes. So the PI will usually write the first draft and then she’ll run it by me or someone else for– the first look is – she’s not a native English speaker – so the first look is to just make sure that the English is correct, and then we move on to the actual writing. So that first process only takes a couple days. The next process is the interplay between the figures and the actual writing, that’s the big thing, because, not just because we’re a microscopy lab primarily, but figures are always the most important part of a paper. If your figures don’t reinforce what the writing says and if the writing doesn’t match up with the figures, then you’re never going to get it published. So it’s not just– so actually what becomes the most important writing is actually the captions for the pictures. The thing that actually describes what you’re looking at – that needs to be letter perfect. So that process is always the longest process, making sure that those captions are correct. The writing of the actual paper is usually pretty much done within a couple months, but the captions and making sure that the figures are correct– sometimes if you decide you want to make your point more clear, you want to change your figure, or if you’ve realized a better way to present it in the figures, you want to change the paper, so that whole process takes about six months.


Q: Gotcha. Can you tell me a little bit about what makes a caption successful?


A: A successful caption makes the figure seem as not busy as possible. The worst thing you want is a lot of pictures and a very little bit of explanation, so it just looks like a busy figure. ‘Cause the risk you run with science is people just tune out. If there’s a bunch of figures with a bunch of subfigures and the caption doesn’t thoroughly explain them, or explain them in a way that’s intuitive, then they’ll just gloss over it, and then you’ve lost most of your impact.


Q: Got it, alright, that makes a lot of sense. Yeah, thank you. So what forms of writing – you’ve sort of answered that – the types of documents that you most often complete. And I can sort of guess who the primary audiences and purposes of these might be, but could you really explicitly tell me? Like for the purchase justifications and for the scholarly publications, who are they for and what is the purpose of them?


A: Very different audiences. I’ve actually had a couple training meetings with people who work in the purchasing office. So these are people who have mostly economics or business degrees, or just regular, some people have English degrees. I like to talk to them sometimes. So they’re not scientists, they work in purchasing. They deal with the government bureaucracy, all the regulations. They’re really good at regulations, understanding those, and figuring out their responsibility. They’re not career scientists, so they’re always telling us, the lab managers who write these justifications, to try to make things as clear as possible. ‘Cause we do have to justify it and explain that this big purchase that the government’s making is worth it for our research. At the same time, we can’t go into too much detail, not just because we don’t want to bog them down with words, but also we need to protect our information, because a lot of the documents end up being public record. So what we need to do is explain why it’s important, and explain why we need it, but also protect the information that’s going to keep our lab running.


Q: Tell me more about that information that you wouldn’t want to be public. Why would you not want it to be public?


A: So ultimately, everything is going to be published, that’s the idea of academia is that everything gets out there eventually. But, of course, you know, PIs want to protect what they made; they don’t want someone else to take credit for it. So the big currency here is credit for the work you did. So if that information gets out, and you know, for every problem that you’re tackling, there’s probably 100 or so researches worldwide who are also tackling that problem, and they’d love to get a leg up.


Q: Got it, got it. That’s a great explanation. Okay.


A: And then the other thing is [chuckle] – and this is something that I probably understand less than I should – there are regulations concerning who is allowed to make purchases, who is allowed to talk to vendors. There’s a lot of regulations about the size of the vendor, and how much information you’re allowed to give them before they make a purchase. An interesting example is, since the Trump administration came in, they put out a very vague “America First” policy, where you’re supposed to favor American companies, which is kind of baffling to scientists because, for one, it’s a global community anyway. And also a lot of these very large foreign companies like Zeiss, which makes microscopes, of course, they are a German company, but a lot of the engineers, the people who install the machinery, the people who maintain the machinery or sell the machinery, they’re all Americans. And a lot of the parts are built in America. So we kind of look at that and think, “Well, that’s overly simple.” And it’s unfortunate because people in the purchasing authority, they also don’t really know what to do with that. So they’ll come to us and say, “If you could, please buy American.” And we’re like, “Well, you need to define your terms.”


Q: Got it, got it. Okay, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And then in terms of the scholarly publication, for those people who might listen to this who don’t really understand how that process works – can you talk a little bit about audience and purpose of those papers that you’re writing?


Q: Sure. So, from our perspective, our audience is the reviewer of the publication. So, the publication will be first read by someone who works at the publication, an editor. And the editor will read it and decide, “Okay, if this is worth looking into, if this is like–” if all the minutiae are correct: grammar’s correct, there’s no ridiculous claims, then they will move it on to the next stage, which is review. They look at what the research is about, and they reach out to people who are in a similar field, although they do make sure they don’t send it to a competitor, but they send it to someone who is in a similar field who is an expert, and then they have at least three of those people read it, give their notes, ask for clarifications, and then it comes back to us. And so our first goal is to get it past the editor, our next goal is to make it palatable to the reviewers. And the reviewers will send back very specific things like, “Hey, we want you to do this specific experiment to prove that what you’re looking at isn’t this other thing you might not have considered.” And sometimes that works out great, it’s something that we actually did, we just didn’t put it in the paper because we didn’t think it was necessary. So that’s the best case scenario, we can just plug that in. The other process is if we didn’t do that experiment and we need to, then we have to spend time doing the experiment, and that’s how you had months and months on to this process, is going back and forth, making sure that everything is– all the boxes are checked, all the possible explanations for what we’re claiming are discounted so that our theory is actually arguably the best explanation.


Q: Great, prefect. Okay, that makes a lot of sense. How did you know how to perform these types of writing when you got into this job?


A: The best way is to read it. And that goes for the academia and for the purchasing. In school, we were encouraged to read as much as we could, as many scientific articles as possible. And I remember an engineering professor – we were talking about patents actually, but patents are also academic papers – and he said, you know, the first thing you do is go to the end, and read the claims, because the claims, and in an academic paper that would be the conclusions. You go to the conclusions, you see what they’re talking about, what they’re claiming, and then, if it’s applicable to what you’re looking for, you then go back and read the rest of the paper. Well, you, talking about the abstract, ‘cause that’s like what you see before the paywall, and then you look at the conclusion, and then you read the rest of the paper. So I feel pretty good about writing academic papers because I’ve read so many. And then when I got this job is when I started doing the purchasing. So what I would do is I went into my predecessors files, and I read what she had written, and I learned how to write it from her.


Q: Great, great. Were there specific things that you were looking for as you read your predecessor’s documents that was especially useful for you?


A: Um, yes. I would say that I looked most for what she didn’t do, because there’s certain things that the regulations say are required, but in practice, most people don’t do. So when I went through and I looked for what she didn’t do, not just so that I know what I can get away with, but just, in a large bureaucracy, the best thing you can do is not stick out. So if you’re doing things differently than most people do, that can be just as harmful to you as doing what you’re not supposed to do. And I have to say that my predecessor didn’t do a lot. So I actually do more than she did, and that’s a personal choice. But yeah, I tended to look mostly for the contrast between what she did and what the regulations say.


Q: Perfect. That’s great, okay. Has there ever been a time in your career that you felt unprepared as a writer at work?


A: Oh absolutely [laughter]. The first time I had a purchase over $3500, that’s a new eschalon of regulation, and I had to write– geez, for a micropurchase, which is underneath $3500, is only like about a paragraph per purchase. And then above that, it’s about 5-10 different documents. And a surprising amount of that is actually copy and pasting between documents, it’s just that, at every level of the purchasing, different people need a different type of form. Same information, different format. And that was a learning curve, because I actually had to go down and talk to the purchasing agents, and they were the ones who told me, “Just copy and paste.” And I was like [chuckle], “Okay, good, thank you!” So I felt completely unprepared for that, but I think what saved me was, instead of trying to email people and ask them, I went and talked to them face to face. ‘Cause they’ll be more honest with you face to face than they will over email [chuckle].


Q: Absolutely, yeah. We talk a little bit about what you did to overcome early writing challenges, but are there other things that you did when you entered into this new job at this new organization that were especially helpful for you?


A: Things I did?


Q: Yeah, things that you– anything that you did besides reading and talking to the purchase people that prepared you to successfully write in the job.


A: Hmm. I think, well, yeah I mentioned talking to the purchasing agents, but also just talking to other lab managers, and talking to other scientists in general. I talk to other PIs. My PI is satisfactorily paranoid about everything going right and not sticking out, but she’s also very new to this, her lab is only about five years old. So I would go to our neighbor PI and talk to him about things. He has a more established lab, he’s more comfortable. And he gave me some pointers on things, and also his lab manager.


Q: Oh, interesting. Okay, yeah. Who oversees your writing? Would you just say the PI and the purchasing agents?


A: The purchasing agent would be the direct person to look at everything I write and make sure it’s correct. Usually the PI will just glance at it. She’s very busy, so for one thing, she doesn’t want to look at every $15 purchase and see what the justification is. So yeah, I would say it’s the purchasing agent. They’re not really my superior, but they are my partner in getting things purchased.


Q: Perfect. And I can guess the answer to this, but how would you say they judge the success of your writing?


A: It checks off a couple boxes.


Q: Perfect, okay. Great. Could you walk us through the process for a specific, recent project or type of project, thinking about how that starts, how the assignment, so to speak, comes to you, how you start or prepare, and then the process going from there, in terms of review?


A: Sure, I’ll talk about the microscope purchase. It was my first non-micropurchase, and it started off with a very vague explanation from my PI, saying, “We need a microscope for this specific purpose.” And she asked me to reach out to three different vendors and set up demonstrations for their best microscope for our purposes. And the first one I contacted, he was very perplexed by how vague I was describing it, so he ended up bringing two different models to look at. And it was only when he showed up with these models that my PI took a look at them and said, “Oh, well, this one’s obviously not what I want, this one’s closer to what I want.” And that’s something that you just have to be prepared for, is that sometimes people in charge don’t give you as much information as you need, and what I learned there was to ask [chuckle]. So if your boss tells you to do something and it’s not specific enough, you need to just stop them and say, “Hey, stop what you’re doing and explain this to me in more detail.” Because I definitely wasted some time figuring it out. And so over the course of having these three different demonstrations, I learned a lot about what my PI actually wanted, and what she was willing to give or take, based on what the people in the lab wanted to do. And I also learned about her opinions of the different sales people. And then, once we had decided between myself, the other senior scientists, and the PI, which of the three we were going to go with, then a whole new process started of dealing with the actual purchasing. So this involves figuring out what route you are going to take, because of course there’s a dozen different routes you can take. There’s sole source justification, there’s market research justification, and it was interesting because my PI was under the impression that it was very easy for us to say, “We want this specific model. Get it for us.” But when I talked to the acquisition officer, she explained that that’s not even up to us. We just say what we’d like, and then the actual purchasing department will send out a call for bids. They’ll actually auction off this contract to all the vendors.


Q: No matter how specific you know your needs are?


A: No matter how specific you want, yeah.


Q: Okay.


A: So that created this strange situation where we had all this information, we knew exactly what kind of microscope we wanted, we knew exactly why it was better than the other vendors, but that’s not my job. According to the purchasing department, my job is to just say what they need, and then they’ll take care of figuring out what’s available and what we’re going to get, which is strange, but that’s just how bureaucracy works in the government setting. So I had gotten quotes for all the pieces that we had demonstrated, and those were thrown out, because we’re not supposed to get quotes. Lab managers are not supposed to get quotes from the vendors, that’s for the purchasing department to do. So [laughter], but the funny thing is that I know lab managers get quotes all the time, and also, you know, sales people love to give you quotes. Even if you just say, “Hey, does this come in blue?”, they’ll send you a quote for the whole thing. So it’s kind of unavoidable to get quotes. So this was the process where I ended up with one option that was suggested by the acquisition officer, and then the other method, which was suggested by my PI. I went down to talk to the acquisition officer, and got the details, and the limitations, and then I went back to my PI and I explained it to her, and she was frustrated because that wasn’t her impression of how it worked. And you know, that is important lesson is that, in a bureaucracy this large, everyone has a different impression of what’s possible, what’s proper. And of course, at the end of the day, we have to defer to purchasing, because they’re the ones who control the money. So I went back to the acquisition officer, and I talked to her for a long time about what we need to do, and how best to do it. And so what we ended up doing is basically making a purchase description, which is the initial document that has all the information that gets, you know, copy and pasted out to other documents like the market research, et cetera. We just made the purchase description so specific that only that model from that vendor would work [chuckle]. Yeah, it’s interesting. So actually what’s happening now is– well, that whole process took a long time. There was some back and forth from someone above our local acquisition officer, someone in the COAC, which is the purchasing department for the whole institute. So this is someone I had never met, who’s in a different building, a different campus all together. We had been going back and forth because he was the one in charge of doing the bid. He sends out requests for bids, he sent out the purchase description to a bunch of different vendors–


Q: Can I interrupt you for just a second?


A: Sure.


Q: Is that because it’s over $3500 that it goes to him?


A: Yes, COAC is only for things above $3500.


Q: Got it, okay.


A: So it has, yeah, that’s where you have the whole bidding process. Below that, the threshold you can actually say, “I want this vendor, this item,” and they’ll do it for you.


Q: Oh, I see. Gotcha.


A: Of course, they have their own system of what are called GSAs, government– [directed to person outside the interview] do you know what that is? Government service something? I forget what it is. [inaudible]


Q: Yeah, I used to know it.


A: But it’s yeah, so yeah, certain vendors have pre-arranged deals with the government, and something I learned very early was actually if I know that there’s a GSA for the item I want, it’s better for me and the better for the purchasing agent to just find the GSA version, which usually isn’t even a different vendor, it’s just a different distributor. So instead of buying it from Sigma-Aldrich, who actually makes the product, I buy it from a distributor, because they have a GSA with the government. And I understand why they do that, because most of those distributors are like, small businesses, or women-owned businesses, minority-owned businesses, veteran-owned businesses.


[person outside the interview]: SWAM vendors.


A: SWAM vendors, exactly. Small, women-owned, and minority vendors, SWAM. So there’s also complicated things with micropurchases, but it’s much more complicated above that threshold. And this is below the, I think it’s $200,000 threshold? Above that there’s even more. Which I was able to look back and see, because the microscopes we own are million dollar microscopes, and I was able to see my predecessor’s documentation on that.


Q: That’s interesting, yeah.


A: Yeah. Which was a lot. And so where was I? Yeah, so the bidding process went through, and I had to then answer questions from vendors. So these are vendors that we hadn’t looked at, but they thought that they have something that would fit, so they would ask for clarification. And you know, occasionally my PI would ask if there was any news, and I would explain to her that I’m getting questions, and I’m making notes of all the questions, so that if we ever do this again, we’ll be able to put even more detail in and avoid this. So it’s funny because there were a couple points when I was told, “Okay, it’s out of your hands. It’s now the bureaucracy taking over.” But of course, they keep coming back to me for questions and clarification, because yeah, the acquisition people are not scientists, so if they have questions from a vendor that has to do with DIC or focal length, they’re going to come back to me [chuckle]. So yeah, it’s been very interesting and very informative.


Q: That’s really, really interesting. So, when we think about audience for that, you’re taking a bunch of information from the scientists, from the PI, and from the people actually performing the work, and then framing that for a couple of different audiences, right? You’re framing it first for the purchasing agents within your organization, and then, one step up, at the COAC? Is that what you said?


A: Yep.


Q: Yeah, and then also for the vendors, right?


A: Right.


Q: Gotcha, okay. Alright, that’s very useful just to sort of clearly clarify that. What is at stake in your writing?


A: Well, at the very basic level, what’s at stake is whether or not we get the piece we need, because if I screw up the justification, then the purchase will get delayed, and then we won’t get the piece we need in time. Which, you know, that’s a big reason why science takes so long, is just getting the pieces you need, figuring– ‘cause sometimes you think you need a piece because you’re doing something no one else has done before, that’s how science works, you get the wrong piece, you don’t know it until you buy it. So keeping up with the pace of the experimentation is number one, and that’s what’s at stake. Beyond that, I’m not sure how drastic it would be with a private sector job, but with the public sector job, there are very serious problems if you do something wrong or if you appear to be acting improprietously. For instance, we had a purchase of a custom antibody – this is a very tightly controlled industry because antibodies are made from the blood of animals, and if you don’t know that, I’m sorry [laughter] – so ordering a custom antibody means that a lot of animals are going to be used and bled just to see if it will work, so there’s– and you know, PITA might say we don’t care, but we care a lot, and we put a lot of safeguards in place so that no animals are bled or killed unnecessarily. So for the custom antibody, we ordered it, and then the vendor actually emailed back and asked, “Would you like us to do a second round? Because the first round didn’t work very well.” And the email actually got sent by mistake to a postbac – so this is someone who is a scientist, a fellow, but they only have a bachelor’s degree, they’re not even a senior member of the lab – and she, not really thinking, just responded, “Yes, please.” Which was actually the right thing to do, but there were a couple of steps to do before that, like getting clarification, getting permission from the COAC, well not the COAC, but the purchasing agent, because not only was it a new round of animals, but it was also about 300 more dollars added on to the price. So that was considered a unauthorized purchase, and that led to myself and the PI being called down to the purchasing department, and they basically gave us a little refresher course, which was actually a very slap-on-the-wrist thing, but that could have been much worse. And if there’s shown to be a pattern of unauthorized purchases, then we could definitely lose our lab, and at the very worst, we could end up on the hook personally for charges that, you know, when the government purchases things, they’re very cheap, but when it falls on an individual, suddenly you see the real price, and it can go up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, which could end up, you know, not just bankrupting a person, but leading to criminal charges, and then jail time.


Q: Sure, sure. Great explanation. Thank you, yeah. What would you say is the most difficult thing about writing in your field, or in your specific position?


A: I think for purchasing, the hardest thing is the audience. Making sure that everything is clear to the people in bureaucracy, the nonscientists, and also people who will see it, the vendors, the actual scientists. So that’s tricky. I say that because, of course, the thing I worry about the most is the bureaucracy, but that’s, I don’t know, that’s like more of a mundane thing. The thing that’s more existentially important is that the audience understands what I’m saying. And then for academia, absolutely the audience, because if the editor doesn’t like it, then it won’t get to the reviewer, and if the reviewers don’t like it, it won’t get publication, and then even at publication, you want it to be readable, so that everyone around the world can read it.


Q: Great, uhuh, excellent. You talked about going back to documents of your predecessor and also talking to the purchasing agents, but has anyone else helped you with your writing formally or informally in this position?


A: Well, for purchasing, we’ve had a couple of training courses, and these are voluntary. I’ve gone to mostly just to meet the people that I’m interacting with over email face-to-face, ‘cause that is very important. But also that they give you insights, like the fact that we’re not supposed to get quotes; like no one told me that, but that’s the thing. And then as far as academia, yeah, that’s what you do from the very beginning of a science or engineering bachelor’s degree. Like I had an engineering degree, it was bioengineering so there was a lot more science involved but, with engineering, it’s all about writing reports. So they teach you from the very beginning how to write a good report. So I’ve had training in school and I’ve had voluntary training at work.


Q: Perfect, that’s great. And that leads really nicely into this next question – what kind of writing do you remember being asked to create as a student? You talked about these reports. More than that, what are the ways in which you think your college writing prepared you or didn’t prepare you for the writing that you do now?


A: Okay. So, like I said, my training in undergrad was in engineering, and engineers mostly work in the private sector, where I would say it’s a lot more salesmanship, so making not only strong claims, but also optimistic descriptions of things. Like if you’re going– so the bioengineering school that I went to was actually very new and it was built on the chemical engineering department. So chemical engineers are all about building factories, so if you’re going to ask someone to invest, you know, a couple million dollars in a factory that’s only going to turn a profit after twenty years, that’s a lot of optimistic salesmanship, and you’ve got to have your numbers exactly on. So that was really helpful because it showed me how data is important, but what’s more important is how you present it. So of course, there will be people who will look over these proposals that you’re writing who do know what you’re talking about and will be able to read the data and know if you’re skewing numbers to make things look better. But, sometimes even more importantly, the presentation can’t be too technical. It has to be talking about how much we’ll be making in the future, and how important this is for the economy or the local people.


Q: This is such an interesting idea, that the presentation of the data is in a sense more than the data. Can you talk a little bit more about that?


A: Okay, so I’ll give you an example. A friend of mine loved data, he was a statistics whiz. And he wrote this paper about– the assignment was, you’re opening–


Q: This is in college? In undergrad?


A: This is in undergrad, yeah. The assignment was, you’re going to open a factory that makes glucose testers in Malaysia, or it was some Asian country. Just pick whatever Asian country you want, do a little research the local regulations – which I thought was a great assignment. I picked Malaysia, he picked I think Vietnam, and he had a lot of interesting data. He went through a bunch of government websites, found all kinds of information, he looked at other companies that had built factories there, and it was the most boring thing you’d ever read [chuckle]. And luckily, he actually showed it to me and a couple other kids before he handed it in, and we were able to tell him that this was as interesting as a bag of bricks [chuckle]. Not that the professor wouldn’t know how much work he’d put in, and know how correct he was in his assertions, but we thought the professor might take points off for how boring it was, and also we figured he should just learn this, because if he goes out in the world and writes these kind of reports, no one’s going to listen to him.


Q: Right [laughter].


A: Yeah [chuckle]. So, yeah, it doesn’t really matter how much work you do, if you can’t present it to your audience in a favorable way, then you’re not going to be as successful as you should.


Q: Great, great. What would have been useful for you to learn or do as a student to even better prepare you for the kind of writing you do now, if anything?


A: It’s interesting because the job I do is very specific, because it’s in the government bureaucracy, so there’s a lot of things I think would be very different in a private sector job, which was what I was being prepared for in college. But I guess, looking at the other students in my classes, and what we were all kind of missing was the sense of collaboration. You know, everyone talks about group projects as always one person does all the work, one doesn’t do any work, one person is great at selling it, you know, the archetypes. And that was something they really pushed in engineering, because they said you’ll always being working in a team, you’ll always be working together, and it’s important that you learn how to do that, and that was very important. And they also tried to create situations where we were working with people in industry and communicating with them. So that was all very good. And, you know, that’s kind of what you make of it. Some people didn’t learn as much as they could from that experience, and some people did. Some people made connections and got jobs out of it, that’s up to them. Then when I got to grad school, where it was more science-based, it was still bioengineering, but the people who were in it were more academia-focused – well, it is grad school, so it’s all more academia-focused anyway – and there was no, especially among the kids who were mostly biology background, not engineering, they had no sense of collaboration at all. Because in biology classes, it’s all about memorization and working alone. So when I would approach other students about getting together and doing homework together, they were like, “Well, that’s not okay. That’s not allowed.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but this is like, really heavy math, so you want to work together about it.” I don’t know, I had a really great experience undergrad. I can’t think of any way that it could be more useful.


Q: That’s wonderful. How do you believe you’ve evolved or improved as a writer over your career so far?


A: My year and a half [laughter]?


Q: Yeah [laughter].


A: I’ve gotten a lot better– and well, this is kind of a personal thing, but I’m sure it’s applicable to a lot of people out of school– I’ve gotten a lot more confident. And you don’t realize it when you’re not confident, but when you are confident, you realize just how valuable that is. Being able to, if something goes wrong, not immediately look at – well, you should look at what you did to see what was wrong – but you shouldn’t hyperfocus on what you did, and how you screwed up, because if you made a mistake, chances are you’re not going to recognize it. So the best thing to do is reach out to someone else, and confidently say, “I made a mistake.” And confidently say, “I need your help to fix it.”


Q: Great, alright. To what extent would you say that writing is valued in your organization?


A: On the academic side, it’s highly valued. It’s essential to be a good writer to get things published, and to have a good eye for how to build those figures. On the purchasing side, I’d say it’s essential, but not highly valued, because, like I said, with the short micropurchase justifications that are about a paragraph, all the purchasing agent is looking for is, you know, “Is their ass covered? Is my ass covered? Does it check those boxes?” So really, that’s just a couple words, and if those two words are there, like “mission critical” [chuckle] – I’m using air quotes by the way – if those phrases are there then it checks the box, and that’s it. It’s a very mechanical way of writing, so I don’t know if the quality of the writing is very valuable, but the clarity is essential.


Q: Got it. That makes sense. So I have just one question left on my form, but before that, you just mentioned something that I wanted to ask about, to follow up on. You talked about writing those figures. So could you talk just a little bit about that process and how you go about that in these academic papers?


A: Sure. So in science, you start off with a question, like “Why is this this?” and then you do a bunch of experiments, and you end up with a bunch of data. So it always starts with the figures. The images and the data are what you start with. So you always, and you know, we’re microscopy so we have very beautiful pictures that we can make look extremely pretty when we try, but even if you’re a surveyor, you’re going to have plots. You’re always going to have plots and graphs, so those are your figures. So it always starts with the figures and it ends with the figures. So number one is making it look pretty. With a plot, you know, even choosing the right type of plot – bar chart versus a scatter plot – those might seem like cosmetic changes, but they’re not. They are extremely important to how the information is conveyed.


Q: Tell me more about that [laughter].


A: So, there’s bar charts that have a bar floating in the column, and then with standard error bars, they’re the little arms reaching out from the top and the bottom of the block. And those are really useful if you have a lot of different conditions you’re trying to show on plot. But if you’re only trying to compare two of them, it’s better to use a scatter, so each bullet is each case that you tried, and you can actually see where it clusters and where it doesn’t cluster. So that’s a really important choice. That will also depend on what N is, how many times you tried it. If N is 3000, you’re not going to want to make a scatter plot, it’s going to look like a mess. And depending on the software you’re using, it might put things that are in the same place next to each other, so it ends up with a really wide bar, which is just hideous to look at. So you have to have a sense of aesthetics when you’re just at the first step of just making the figures to even show your PI and say, “Hey, look at this information.” ‘Cause that’s the first test. If you have information and you want to present it to your PI and it doesn’t look pretty, she might say, “Do it again,” or just, “Don’t show this to me again, it’s hideous.” So of course, that’s where it starts. That’s where presenting science, or any research, starts is with the figures.


Q: Yeah, absolutely. And you really have to have a sense of aesthetics to do this. Is that something that you learned in school, that you learned on the job, or that’s sort of innate? How do you see that skill?


[person outside of the interview: Talk about your resume.


A: Oh [laughter]! I’ll get to that, that’s a really good point. I think I was very lucky for the engineering school that I went to. I went to the University of Maine Engineering School, can’t plug it enough, amazing school. The first class was about data manipulation and linear aggression, and that might sound boring, and for a lot of kids it was. It was taking a very messy equation and then figuring out a way to make it into a straight line, and I loved the puzzle of it. It’s like sudoku for me, it’s just so much fun and relaxing, because once you finally get that straight line, it feels amazing. So you have sine waves, you have logarithmic curves, you have exponential curves, and each of them can be manipulated into a straight line, you just have to change the variables around – move things from one side of the equals side to the other, et cetera. And that was a great lesson in mathematics, it was a great lesson in teamwork, because certain people will have insights on them. There’s countless ways you can manipulate an equation, you can make it even more ridiculous if you want to, just for fun, but getting it down to the most useful, straight line is incredibly important and useful. So that was a great introduction to what you’d be doing, because I do that all the time in my job, and a lot of the scientists I work with don’t have any engineering background, they’re all life sciences. So if they see a scattering of points, they might say, “Well, that’s insignificant.” But, if I take a look at it, I’ll say, “Hey, give me your data, let me play with it a little bit. Let me see if I can make a straight line out of it.” And then sometimes I do. And then they’re like, “Oh! I see it now.” And now that changes the course of their research.


Q: Got it, got it.


A: I mean, that’s one thing. That’s playing with numbers. But the other things that I’ve learned in this job are writing the captions. I’ve learned a lot about writing captions in this job, because we do have these beautiful pictures, and that’s kind of the bait. It gets people to look at the paper. And so you’ll have a beautiful picture of a neuron– our neuron is actually beautiful, it has this sinusoidal curve, like an s, so it’s very easy to find when you’re looking at a bunch of neurons in a brain, so that’s useful, but also it just makes for some great pictures. So you have that, beautiful green or red or green/red/yellow neuron against a black background – gorgeous – and then next to that, you’ll have a plot, or you’ll have some numbers. So you’ve got the bait, and the chaff (? 45:56), and it’s all about constructing that so that the reader enjoys it and doesn’t get bogged down by too much information.


Q: That’s great, great explanation. Thank you. And my last couple questions here, how would you define successful writing as a student versus successful writing now? And would you say you’re a successful workplace writer?


A: I won’t say that [chuckle], but I will say– the answer to the first question’s very simple. Writing as a student, you have an audience of one. Writing in the workplace, you have an audience of 10 to 500 [chuckle].


Q: And you would not say you’re a successful workplace writer? But you would say you’re confident?


A: I’m a competent. And I’m getting more confident. I’ve never written a research paper where I’m the primary author, so I wouldn’t say I’m accomplished in that regard. Although I have a couple papers where I am an author, which is, you know, humbling, because I feel like the new guy still, but I am doing a lot of useful stuff, so it is worth giving me that credit.


Q: Is there anything I didn’t ask about that you think would be useful to tell me?


A: I think you did a great job. Oh–


[person outside of the interview]: I think coding is a language too.


A: Oh yeah, that’s a good point, I didn’t mention that.


[person outside the interview]: Different codes that you’ve created to help streamline–


A: Yeah, my wife is mentioning coding, computer programming. And that is a form of writing, and I’ve got to say, for someone who is just approaching coding, you need to think of it like a language, ‘cause the same rules apply. ‘Cause, you want to write a research paper, you want it to be concise and simple, nothing unnecessary. And the same rule with coding. You’ve got to find the simplest solution. If you can write it in as few lines as possible is important. Also keeping notes. In coding, there’s annotations. You’ll write a symbol that mutes what you’re writing, so it’s just text, it’s just for the person reading it, the computer doesn’t even care. And that’s so important, because when I got to this job, there were a couple different tools that were being written for data manipulation that were not well annotated. So me coming in cold, the person who had written them had already left the lab, I had to go in and parse through and figure out what they were saying. They had done a little bit of annotation, but I think, honestly, I think the person was trying to hide the things that they did that they knew weren’t the best way to do it. Which is fine, you know, I’ve got to say that, if you’re doing something that’s inefficient, and you know it is, you have to own it, and that’s not a bad thing. If it works, it works, that’s fine. But if you know that there’s a better way to do it, just say so. It’ll help the next person who comes along to improve it. So keeping notes, keeping notes is so important in science. That’s something I’ve gotten a lot better at, is keeping notes of my day-to-day activities in my lab notebook, so–


Q: Are they for only you to reference back to, or will other people see those eventually?


A: Well, if I’m going to leave the lab and someone is going to take over my project, that’s their bible for that.


Q: Perfect, got it.


A: And then for coding, yeah, the tools that have been used in the lab previously were all still in script format. So just like, the code itself, you hit “start” you hit “run”. I have been trying to make it, take it a step further. So I’ve been making gooeys, which are the user interface, so making it like a program that you actually point and click, versus actually interacting with the code.


Q: Is that so that the person who would be running it doesn’t need to understand the code?


A: Exactly, yeah.


Q: Got it, okay.


A: Because, something I noticed right away was– I made a script for generating fly labels; we have like, you know, thousands of viles of flies, and most people hand write their labels. But what we’ve been trying to do is get them to keep a database of them, like an Excel sheet of all the labels. But then they don’t want to deal with copy and pasting each label onto a template, and then printing it off onto one of the sticky labels. So I wrote a script whereby you can just copy from your Excel file and it would generate the template with all the words in place, but because it was in script form, a lot of people just didn’t even look at it. But when I made a gooey for it, they love it.


Q: Oh that’s great. Okay, yeah, that makes a lot of sense.


A: And the other thing that my wife mentioned was my resume. And I’ve got to say, it’s a funny story. In my graduate school, there were two schools involved. There was electrical engineering department and the biology department – they got together to make their bioengineering program. But there was still a lot of division. And one of the things that the electrical engineers loved was this program called LaTex, which is, it’s called, well it’s known as a what you type is what you get. ‘Cause Microsoft Word is what you see is what you get. You’re actually writing it. But with LaTex, it’s more of a code. You’re coding, it’s like HTML, you put in like dashes for italics, et cetera, and then you compile it, and it spits out a beautiful PDF. The people in the biology side hated it when I wrote my reports in LaTex, but it was actually a requirement from my advisor on the engineering side. And that got me a lot of grief from people, but I learned how to use it, I used it well, and I got my job, I went to interview with the PI, and then later I got the job, well actually, very soon after I got the job, she really liked me. And when I got there and I talked to the people who I was working with, they said, “Oh yeah, you’re the one with that resume!” Because apparently the PI had come out of her office and waved it at people, saying, “Look at this, look how pretty it is!” And so I know that’s why she called me back, well I’m sure that the content was good [laughter], but also– but you know that feeds back into my original point. No matter how good your resume is, if you don’t present it well, it might not get read. And yeah, I mean, content I think was pretty good, I mean I had a really good– I ended up with a 3.9 in my grad school, I didn’t mention my GPA for undergrad because I don’t want to [laughter], but you know, if you have a better grade that’s more recent, doesn’t matter. But yeah, I know that, I don’t know how many people applied, I don’t know how many people she interviewed, but I got onto the list because of that program.


Q: That’s really interesting, okay. That’s great. Thank you so much!


A: You’re welcome!

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