Monday, 11 August 2014


Since July, our lab has been running experiments non stop. The way our protocol works, this is an all hands on deck, round the clock situation, as it involves bottle feeding very young mammals by. The data we need requires lengthy surgeries on USDA animals. The procedures are sterile, the animals are intubated and have IV lines. The surgeries themselves take four hours. The success of the surgery is only known afterwards, when the electrodes are connected up to the EMG system. Prior to surgery, our electrodes must be built by hand, and then be sent off for gas sterilization as they cannot go through a standard autoclave. Other parts of our system are also made in house, and require testing for electrical faults. Between surgeries, tools have to be washed, packed and sterilized. None of the materials we use are easy to come by, many of them have lengthy lead times on orders and all of them are expensive. Suffices to say, there are many, many, MANY things that can go wrong in our experiments. And, after six weeks of solidly being part farm, part electrical shop, and part hospital, I can say with some confidence that almost everything did.
Among the things that went wrong, the worst was losing an animal in surgery. In this case, the dominant emotion is not frustration. It's sadness, anger, disappointment. As we had three young summer students from the medical school in the lab, all of whom where involved in the surgeries to some degree, the priority was making sure that they were ok. Loosing an animal in surgery is too serious a matter to focus on your frustrations with the science. And, because my PI is awesome, she knows this. Those events exist in a separate space from the other things that went wrong this summer. They are matter for sober reflection, and no matter how much you want to get data that summer, you pause when that happens, and figure out what you can do better.
However, there were myriad other things that went wrong, of greater and lesser importance. Electrode placement in surgery failed to yield adequate results. Intermediate cables broke and had to be resoldered, sometimes as a surgery in which that cable would be needed was progressing. An inaccurate channel map of all the connections meant that two whole EMG channels were wasted (my fault). The lab was not finished, meaning our lab server could not be set up, resulting in all the data being fragmented across multiple 3TB external hard drives. Tools had to be autoclaved during surgery. IV lines were ripped out. Animals stopped breathing in the middle of surgery. Injectible aneasthetics everyone swore would make our surgery smoother had only bad effects on our animals. A vomiting and diarrhea bug tore through all our animals one by one. A cable came partially unplugged, resulting in us losing half our EMG channels. An xray c-arm we'd already had repaired twice failed again. Every day started at 8 and ended at six, if not seven. Most weekends involved data collection of some sort. As the summer wore on, everyone's reserves were ground down. Everyone's patience began to wear thin. As one of the chief surgeons, I began to be concerned about my ability to do the surgeries. I was, and am, exhausted.
In such a situation, frustration quickly comes to dominate your feelings. Every thing that hasn't been done, every logistical snafu that comes from something having slipped through the cracks, becomes an issue. Surely, someone was supposed to be on top of it. Surely this had been mentioned three weeks ago. Surely we had agreed it would be done (just not by me). The productive response in these situations is to figure out how the situation can be fixed here and now. The frustrated response is to huff, to use a sharp tone, to bitch. In reality, the best you can hope for is that both will happen, the frustrated response to let off steam, the productive response to keep things moving.
The worst aspect of frustration is how it blinds you to simple solutions. After a few weeks of experiments like these, it is most tempting, when faced with a glitch, to reach for the explanations that involve people, not things or simple stochasticity. Thus days are lost remaking cables, rather than checking that all the cables of the set up are still plugged in. The solution that involves people, work, effort, not accidents, is more appealing to the frustrated mind grappling with how little control it has over the situation.
Dealing with frustration is hard. It requires calm and perspective, in rare supply when surrounded by screaming animals and beeping machines. This is why we can't do our research year round. During experiments, the best that can be done, I think, is to take small breaks when it all gets to much. Send the med students home early if you can. Cancel a day's data recording, if you need to. Be kind to each other. Make sure that night shift burdens are spared.
I am thankful that the two people in charge of personnel planning (my PI, and SuperTech), have a good eye for how everyone else is doing. On one particular day, SuperTech noticed that after a long surgery, I was a mess. My hands were shaking, my motor control gone, my mood frazzled and incoherent. After I messed up a (not life threatening) routine procedure, I think she went to find the PI. The PI sent me home (in a nice way). Sometimes, that's the best thing you can do.
Frustration is friction: energy wasted as heat. At the end of long experimental bouts, or long field seasons, energy is at a premium. Managing an exhausted, frustrated team takes tact and sensitivity. That's not something you realise until you experience it. I hope that, when the time comes, I will be able to look past my own exhaustion and frustration and make the right decisions for the people and the science in my lab.

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