Does publishing in Science make me less useless?


I only just realized that I had not gotten around saying (specifically to my scientist friends and to hopeful immigrant graduate students) that my thesis research was published last year, finally. In Science Translational Med. That would  sound like victory to some, it was not a bad feeling for me either. Somehow it didn’t linger, I have felt happier for much longer following things that did not take >4 yrs in the making and >7 years of my life. I had finished my part of the project ( and yes, I am first author for all those, who like me, believe in appropriate credits) by January 2010. So, don’t ask me why I was still trying to defend that it was real work for a year until I finally, with aggressive follow ups with individual thesis committee members, was able to convince them that I had enough to write a thesis and an article. Had my adviser been less picky about the journal, I had already written one! It is true that seeing how much of a pain it is to get to the publishing point, from reviews to additional changes ( and we were lucky that we weren’t asked to do any extra experiments after submitting, just some additional analyses) it is a tortuous route and less rewarding for the advisers than for the graduate students. Making it understandable for them to be that selfish. Not justified, though, as the longer a graduate student takes to publish, the harder it is for the next step in academia.

In my position I was just made to believe (sometimes  proactively by suggesting I couldn’t give presentations, sometimes by showing no appreciation and many times just calling me lazy) incompetent.

After one large scale failed project  that had  been ongoing for 10 yrs in our lab. I started and finished this one in 2 and  a half years, with no prior experience in behavioral neuroscience or even neuroscience and no one in our lab available for guidance. It took more than 3 years for expert labs to conduct the electrophysiology experiments that ‘completed’ the paper. It made a Science publication. So, maybe  I shouldn’t complain. See if I care in two years.

As for my presentation skills in par, if not better, than almost any other graduate student in my department, anyone who attended my PhD. seminar would tell you that. I would include most post docs of that department as well. Never did I go to a presentation in the department, let alone our own lab presentation, which was not just about average. In lab it was not even that. So, who was I being compared to, exactly? My thesis committee did have two or three faculty members who genuinely cared about my well – being and didn’t treat me as a sacrifice in the altar of science.

Other than the new tenure track faculty recruited to the department, who were both very nice and cared about me and my future, I have nothing good to say about anyone in my ex- department. After the talk that apparently sucked so badly and was the greatest disappointment of my advisers life (even though it had generated a lot of questions during and after the talk), I asked one of the new recruits if it had been, really, so bad via email. He told me it had been understandable and he remembered the results ( him and others in my department do not work on even closely related fields). Being a nice guy he said that advisers want the best for their students. I don’t know about that. Despite being the only person in the lab with any results, let alone seriously good ones, I was not given a lab farewell dinner. Or even a lunch ( that he throws for the less deserving people). Probably because at that point I had not taken up any position anywhere.. No one and nothing was going to drive me towards more years of despair to prove a point.

In my adviser I saw a person who claims to care about all the children and their parents leading a difficult life due to a disease, who he has never met, and not caring about the people who have been his students for four years or more, his junior faculty collaborators and lab technicians. He claimed that 25 years of research he had contributed to had led to a particular class of drugs going into clinical trials. Well, he had as much to do with that particular research as I did. Which is nothing really.  He did use a ten year NIH grant of several million dollars to come up with exactly squat. Just by remaining in a field ( a small one at that) one cannot claim the successes of the field and ignore the failures and treat real people as sacrificial goats. This is science, not religion.

(This is not to say that he didn’t do anything in the field, his contributions are significant, publishing every 7-8 yrs or so in a decent journal, however, nothing translational has come out of those, other than my results that are remotely translational at best)

I was a better scientist than my supposed teacher, before I ever went to that lab. And since then, we don’t even belong in the same platform.

You may think I am full of it and ungrateful. I am sorry, I did not and do not do science to be grateful to anyone. I have had good teachers in my life, and I have the full mental capacity to discern when I have one and when I don’t. Also, you will think that these are professors in highly idolized Universities, all over the world. Well, in science, as in most other things. Buyers are amenable to sellers who sell better. They must do that. And that is perfectly practical and universally acceptable.

I just didn’t want to sell my life to remain that that ‘peerage’. It didn’t inspire me at all. I have much more respect for everyone I came across during my Masters in India.

I had a few friends whose faith helped me stay sane and finally, I knew that I had done more work than anyone else  who had passed through the lab, and remained alive to graduate (or do a ‘successful’ post doc). There were four graduate students, two of whom are my good friends who just left, fourth year in graduate school, because of really risky projects which were poorly envisioned or in areas that our lab had no knowledge about. Had I stayed in India I would have had a much larger group of like minded friends and made bonds that last through life. Whereas, as a result of the toxic lab conditions: when a friendship only reminds you of terrible times, add to that distance, it is just easier to let  go. I am only in touch with two graduate school friends now. I am in touch in people I knew only for a few months in my lab or department in India, 10-12 years ago.

Also, as an aside, I was not able to acknowledge the Tech ( who quit the lab) and my very good friend and listener to my laments in the article: there is space at the end of all research articles to acknowledge such contributions, the tech especially deserved an authorship. Apparently they didn’t do enough to deserve any credit. They did more than anyone else I met during my PhD. for my work. I Know. I am the first author after all. However, it was not going to help them in their career much to be acknowledged and I just wanted all correspondence to be over as quickly as possible.

My sincere apologies to them. I did fight. But it wasn’t a battle worth winning. He had wanted to add the name, as an author, of someone who knew nothing about anything in my project ( and has also since quit, deservedly, in his fourth year). I did not let that pass.

I am still quite bitter. Can you tell ( ha ha!). However, what doesn’t kill you…

The upside is that my parents are very proud of me and got to read about my work in several news articles from all over the world. Science might have been dull at that time, because my article was taken up by several newspapers, even Salon ( the blog) and the area’s TV news ( FOX).

I don’t think I am a failure or even a failed neuroscientist ( even if not a BIG one). I work on autism now.. and am trying to work out a way to rationally organize large amounts of data from mouse phenotyping ( behavioral, neurophysiological, anatomical and molecular). And no, if people think it is not science, I don’t fight them. I don’t even know who they are. That is how much my own opinion matters to me now, one lesson learned well! I don’t think I ever intend to be identifiable as a bioinformaticist, but, its not a big deal.

My only suggestion (or advice) is for the immigrant graduate students to place faith ( as we are used to on our teachers/advisers) only where it is deserved and definitely never on anyone more than themselves. It is hard for eastern cultures to come to terms with respecting without obeying. The thing to remember is that this is just like any other field, each man to himself, in the end. It is true that an advisers opinion can make or break a career, in the form of a recommendation letter and only a minuscule number of graduate students probably make it ‘big’ with the support of any external person, like a thesis committee member. However, one cannot be a slave in mind, body and soul, for a letter. No one will actively lie (even if they can cast shadows and forget about the good things) on paper, because it is a portrayal of themselves. I do not doubt that my adviser will say the truth about me, even if we did not get along, although I have not needed the words till date to help me. This is a risky career path, where building good working relationships with people who hold too much power over you is a critical  factor. Be prepared to lose it all, but still, save yourself.

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