Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Sorry I Don't Have A Lab

I just received a most curious missive: an application for a postdoctoral position in my laboratory! The sender wrote seven careful paragraphs about their* research experience and attached their CV.

It is not spam--the person is a legimitate researcher with published papers and all that jazz. But I rather suspect it is the machine-gun approach--the same e-mail sprayed liberally across a field of potential hirers.

What could possibly have tipped me off? Well, a wee bit of judicious googling might have informed the applicant that I am currently a freelance writer and therefore unlikely to be looking for postdocs. And there's no mention anywhere of how their interests and research experience makes them a good match for my laboratory. Instead, I read this:

After the six years of study and nearly two years of work experience on biology, my work covered from cell biology to molecular biology, from cell manipulation level to gene clone and shut down. I'm confident that I can be competent to most of biological work.

Whoa! Whoa. Just, whoa. A purely cellular and molecular background means you've only half-experienced the field of biology.

I know, because my predominantly ecological and evolutionary background has left me in the same situation. When I read about the work this applicant has done with DAPI fluorescent staining and monoclonal anti-α tubulins and dsRNA interference, those are just words to me. I've never used those techniques.

But have they ever had to use the weather and season and time of day to guess where they'd find their study organism? Have they ever sampled quadrats along a transect line? Or spent hours just sitting still and watching animals? These are the techniques of the ecologist--dare I say the naturalist?--and they are just as much a part of biological work as ultramicromorphological observations.

Should the applicant ever engage in the aforementioned judicious googling and stumble across this blog, I would like to thank them for giving me an excuse to jump on my soapbox and whine about the rift between mol/cell and eco/evo. I've been here before, lamenting the negative stereotypes each side entertains about the other:

Mole/cell biologists are narrow-minded, technique-obsessed fly-counters and yeast-spreaders, driven by medical funding, with no interest in the big picture and no grasp of how life works in the real world. Meanwhile, eco/evo biologists are tree-hugging, touchy-feely, pot-smoking hippies who failed chemistry and use science as an excuse to hike in the rainforest and dive in the tropics.

Mmmm, diving in the tropics . . . oh wait. Actually, despite my background, I'm not eco/evo. I didn't do a single quadrat or transect for my thesis. In fact, I spent my PhD years in a little-known third camp, a track that Stanford calls Integrative/Organismal, or I/O.

My dissertation was indeed extremely integrative, if you take "integrative" as a fancy word for "all over the map."

I had a chapter of genetics. A chapter of biomechanics. A chapter of oceanography. A chapter of in vitro development. And an appendix of almost straight natural history. My thesis had ADD, and that probably counts as a win for the I/O track.

But I/O is still the narrowest slice of biology at Stanford. There are only two active I/O faculty, compared to twenty-three mol/cell and eighteen eco/evo. And those two guys have been around for a while. I never heard any murmurs of hiring into I/O, and I rather suspect it will die out when they retire.

And that's too bad. I really liked the idea of a third camp that straddled the line, spanned the divide, crossed the tracks. I wanted it to stimulate collaboration and mutual understanding. If I had my own laboratory, that's what I would do with it. Instead of hiring "I'm confident that I
can be competent to most of biological work," I would look for "I'm eager to broaden my molecular and cellular background into ecological and evolutionary studies."

But that's if I had a lab.

If I had a lab
I'd integrate in the morning
I'd integrate in the evening
All over the seas
I'd integrate questions
I'd integrate techniques
I'd integrate love between mol/cell and eco/evo
All over this land

* I am using singular they, as I am uncertain of the sender's gender. "But you are a grammar snob!" I hear you protest. "How can you condone singular they?" All I can say is this: it's the worst solution to the problem, except for all the others.


  1. Tom of the Sweetwater SeaFebruary 22, 2011 at 8:17 AM

    As a neutral pronoun, I prefer (S)(He)(it) which can be abbreviated to 4 letters. (Sorry, I couldn't resist!)

  2. Oh! I didn't know you smoked pot.

  3. You should have just tossed the whole thing in the trash after reading the line" "I'm confident that I can be competent to most of biological work."
    If people can't even form a decent sentence for use in a CV or cover letter they're not someone I'd waste time on. They left out an important and obvious word...perhaps they meant "...most of your biological work." or "...most aspects of biological work." etc. FAIL!

  4. biology is a huge field, I love the way you post your story.