Peer pressure

2 May, 2007

“Techne, going to the talk?”

It’s 11:50 and due to government hoop-jumping I only got in an hour before and so I’ve barely done anything yet. Talks really fuck with my flow in general, I’m sorta — you’ll be shocked to hear this — ADD/hyperfocusy when it comes to work. And I didn’t mark this talk in my calendar, which means it didn’t catch my eye.

But jeez, the whole lab is going! Our PI. All 3 other fellows including the one who barely speaks English. One of two technicians AND the senior non-PI scientist. IOW, everyone who’s in today who isn’t tied to the bench by a timer.

“Um, what’s it about?”
“Schizophrenia, cortical activation something.”
SCZ (as we abbreviate it)? That’s not even my area. That’s not anyone’s area in our lab. I ask who’s giving it and the talk isn’t familiar. Of course, me having a bad name memory and not “doing” SCZ, he could be a Nobelist in the damn field and I’d barely know. And “cortical”, that doesn’t sound too genetic. Sounds like all the cell biology stuff I ran screaming from in grad school. Yeah, definitely a talk I’d skip under normal circumstances, and my feet already hurt from my morning adventures in walking-all-the-hell-over-NIH.

“Where is it?”
“[Halfway across campus.]”

Sigh. My feet can just barely take that, and it’s SO damn nice out, and EVERYONE is going and look they’re already out the door. I pick up my notepad, which this week features a list titled “OMG I have so much to do” and has 10 items already, and join the crowd. After all, if everyone is going, maybe it will be good, right?

Yeah, you know what that sentence means as well as I do. Worst. Use. Of an hour. Ever. Some better uses of my time would have been:

Sleeping at my desk. It would at least have been restful, more restful than lecture-naps. Everyone has nodded off at a talk at one time or another, but once in grad school I got called out for snoring during a talk. That was seriously embarrassing, and now I live in fear of doing it again. Luckily nobody I knew was at that talk, but this time both Boss (PI) AND Boss’ Boss were there. (‘Course, Boss was sleeping himself. Later we traded staying-awake-through-lecture tips. I usually bite my hand as hard as I can stand, and kick myself/step on my toes under the table if there is a table. Along the same “pain” lines, he pulls the hairs on the back of his neck. Oh, the things one learns in one’s postdoc.)
Staring into space in an empty room. I could have meditated. Net gain in relaxation.
Poking myself in the face with my pencil. This could have gotten me injured and given me a good excuse to leave the hall, albeit a hard-to-explain one. Hmm, why DIDN’T I do this?

Now, don’t get me wrong. The talk was a perfectly decent talk for someone in the field or who cared about that sort of approach. It just wasn’t at all interesting to me. I have a hard enough time learning to be a geneticist, faking my way through electrophysiology is not something I’m into. I spent about half the talk trying, about another 1/3 biting my hand as hard as I could stand, and the last bit doodling. Here is what is written in the doodle-space of my “OMG I have so much to do” list.

  • A very tiny stick drawing of a female figure, with hair sticking out in all directions and her hands on her face and a word balloon saying “HALP.” (This ungrammar is inspired by the weekend I spent reading lolcats.)
  • Very tiny writing recapitulating what I remembered of the lolcats:
  • Very tiny writing saying “OH NOES I’S TRAPPED IN BORING”
  • Very tiny writing saying “HALP I NEED A HALP”
  • Less tiny writing saying “stand up for what U Need next time”
  • Primary list of ppl for whom I need to buy Mother’s Day cards
  • Secondary list of ppl for whom I need to buy Mother’s Day cards

Talk protocol is such that if you look like a grad student who might be mid-experiment you can leave whenever, but you need to have positioned yourself unobtrusively for people to buy it, and we all were sitting mid-row. You best believe I would have worked that shit had I been better positioned. It FINALLY ended, but the questions, of course, went on and on. All I could think was: great, now I am wasting MORE than an hour at this talk. (I wrote most of my lolcat phrases on my pad during this period.)

Protocol specifies that you can leave after the applause and before the Q&A, whoever you are. But I was mid-row and went with a large group and protocol FURTHER specifies — OK, strongly recommends — that you not leave individually if you all came together. I kept my eye on the three dudes at the end of the row who were blocking our egress and when they finally left I oh-so-subtly pointed it out to my PI.  “Look,” I said. “Those guys left, we’re clear.” “You guys are,” he said ruefully, “I’m stuck here. I’m having lunch with the guy.” (Lunch with a speaker is a tradition, there are anywhere from 2 to 15 people in attendance, so this doesn’t mean they were buddies.)

The next questioner’s question was an annoying non-sequitur, and I’d had enough. I got up and left without listening to the answer, walking over all our lab’s attendees as I went.  Even though it was probably the last question, I didn’t want to have to deal with being social with the labmates. I walked back to the lab all pissed off at the waste.  Well, it WAS a nice day, anyway.

Other members trickled in after me, and to the tech I said something like “Wish I hadn’t gone to THAT talk,” and he said “Me too.”  Wait.  Him too?  “Why did you go?” I asked. “‘Cause everyone else was?” “Yeah…”

Ding! I put two and two together as the light went on, illuminating the puzzle pieces as they jumped into focus.  Tech and I went because a critical mass had formed.  The mass formed because a few people were joining our PI, cause when the PI goes to a talk, it’s usually important.  The PI didn’t want to go, but the speaker was hosted by his boss, whose field the talk WAS in. I could just imagine the email from his boss encouraging him to come and lunch with this faboo researcher.  It was all just one long chain of peer pressure!

This is probably some kind of definition of power.


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