Wednesday, 17 June 2015

The value of capable

Today was a tough day in the lab. Supertech and I are flying solo (PI is away), and we are running two weeks of experiments using a rather expensive, and rather delicate, piece of custom built equipment. The experiments are supposed to be straightforward. As today showed, "supposed" is the operative word here.
It should be noted that supertech and I (well, mostly supertech. I just help) are pretty anal about planning experiments. We put a lot of thought into how the experiments are going to run, and we test as much as we can beforehand. The reason for this is that once experiments start, there is no time to think. Baby animals are screaming to be fed, multiple multi hour surgeries need to be done, and we need to make sure that people don't get irradiated by the high powered fluoroscopes (there are two). The simple act of getting through experiments drains brains and nerves.
But even with the best laid plans, things go wrong. Not everything can be anticipated. Which lead to today, when our expensive piece of machinery (basically, a series of precise electronically controlled pumps) stopped working. With four screaming hungry pigs in the room.
As in turned out, a crucial piece of information had been left out when discussing the design of the system (before I or Supertech joined the lab). Why? Who knows. The same reason that, with hindsight, really obvious things are missed from experimental planning. Essentially, the pumps got fouled up by the radio opaque particulates in the liquid we pump. Two weeks of experiments and four animals were at stake.
Supertech and I then went into super capable mode. We troubleshooted the system every way we knew. I called the manufacturer, and confirmed what the issue was. We found a way to clean the pumps, and then started to work on solving the problem that our fluid had particles that were too large. Within an hour we had three possible solutions. Within two hours we had started to put in place all three. By seven pm this evening, Supertech and her husband had built a high volume filtering system that would remove the large particles from our suspension (we'd already by this point checked that this kept the solution radio opaque). Tomorrow experiments will resume, and we will only be one day behind.
As a lab team, supertech and I are capable. We can deal on the fly with most crises. When something goes wrong, within half an hour we have a plan, within a hour we're putting it in place. We brainstorm, prioritize, call people and get things fixed. She's better than I am, but I pull my weight. I don't think we've lost much more than a week on any experimental schedule, and that was due to unforeseen animal death. We have stayed overnight in the lab to care for sickly animals. We've harassed suppliers to get things overnighted. We've become conversant in technical topics we knew nothing about. We get things done.
For the science, this is great. For the animals, this is essential. But for us... I worry. I worry that capability, the ability to creatively solve problems on the fly, and to put in the effort to do it, doesn't always reap the rewards equivalent to its cost in hours and stress. I don't mean to impugn our PI. She treats us exceptionally well, recognizes our efforts, and has rewarded us with substantial autonomy and authority on the running of the lab. I mean rather, that the labor market since Taylor and Ford has been structured so as not to rely on the capable worker. To a manufacturer, the added value of a capable line worker is marginal compared to a merely adequate one. And in science, techs and postdocs (and graduate students) are somewhat like manufacturing labor. Yes, a good postdoc adds value to the lab, but how much value relative to a merely adequate one?
Many of my smart, capable friends in other jobs hide their capability, revealing it only to those they trust not to exploit it. Capable people need to learn to say no, because they get asked to do more than most, and all of the difficult, non rote tasks. And problem solving is tiring work.
I like being capable. I like not being helpless in the face of problems. But I worry that capability is a liability, because it becomes assumed, and because its value to the beneficiaries is less than its cost to those who do the capable work.

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