Sunday, August 29, 2010

Research Incest - It's a Game the Whole Research Group can Enjoy

Research ethics, you want to talk about ethics?

It seems that people recently have been concerned about the omnipresent PI and how a supervisor is responsible for things that occur when they have their back turned. The whole “the PI has responsibilities for everything that occurs in their lab” issue got me to thinking about a friend of mine.

My friend was (and is) one of the best set of hands in Main Group synthetic chemistry. He had just started as an independent researcher and spent all of his available funds on two graduate students and a post-doc. Things were going very, very well for about six months. Then, one day in the late fall, my friend walked into the lab to discover his post-doc and one of his graduate students, on the floor, on top of a pile of lab coats recreating the more disturbing parts of “Monsters Ball”.

The post-doc and graduate student were married … just not to each other.

I just hope they used a safety shield.

He called them both in the next day to have a chat about the proper use of lab coats. Suffice it to say within the week he had lost both the post-doc and the grad student, leaving him with a relatively weak Masters student to start his research career. In a lesser person this would have crippled a researcher but not this guy. Did I mention he was the best hands in synthetic Main Group chemistry? What he did was move out of his office and into the lab. He taught his courses, worked at the bench, trained his remaining grad student and wrote papers and grants in the evening. It was quite possibly one of the most heroic efforts I have ever witnessed.

And it worked.

Given the tone of the recent discussion on the role of the PI one has to wonder if my friend had any business addressing the issue at all. There are all kinds of sloppy behaviors leading to all kinds of explosions that can wreck a career.

When we discussed the whole situation at a conference my friend said that he really had no moral objections to what they were doing but he felt that he was not in control of his research group.

So what about it? We have all experienced the “Love Amongst the Beakers Syndrome”. I mean really, long hours, limited socialization and no one really gets your obsession except your chemical family. Reseach incest … is it another PI responsibility?

Of course the mid-life crisis / PI – French post-doc adulterous affair is so common to be banal but that is different aspect of the same phenomenon.


genegeek said...

I would like to think that I would talk to the student and postdoc without judgement - I'm not concerned about who they were with but that the lab is not the best place for this type of activity. I would have that talk if one of my students was having sex with her husband in the lab so it would just happen with two lab members.

And kudos to him for doing all the work! I hope that he now has help and can spend some time outside the lab.

Chemjobber said...

I agree that the PI is to be commended for his fairly rational response to this. I think the only way to treat this sort of thing is to say, there's no sex in the laboratory. (just like there's no sex in the Champagne Room.)

To expect to control the social lives of your underlings is a minor bit of madness, though.

Liberal Arts Chemist said...

I find the idea that the location of the relationship rather than the nature of the relationship is where we have gone with this. I guess safety is the moral high ground in chemistry and we can get away with critiquing each others dress, habit and relations when it involves safety but are uncomfortable otherwise. Interesting ...

Corey said...

Okay, noting the subject of this post, I cannot help but comment on your description of the PI as "the best hands in synthetic Main Group chemistry". You use this term not once, but one has to ask..."best hands in synthetic Main Group chemistry" - and you know this how? Does the "best hands" comments mean something else?

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For a while it was all about research and then it was all about teaching and now it's all about trying to find a balance while teaching at a small liberal arts and science university.