Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Unfriendly departments

I have had the good fortune during most of my career to either be in departments that are generally very friendly or ones where battles between the different egos were kept between said egos and were not projected onto the trainees of each lab. This has been a good thing. However, in one of my training stops I landed in a fragmented department that was odd from an outsider's perspective.

Several core groups co-existed within the department, and while there was never any open hostility between them, the different groups just didn't interact. Within groups = lots of great interaction; between groups = as if each group was their own continent when the world was believed to be flat.

I am an outgoing person who likes to get to know the people I see every day. I can't help it. A silent elevator ride with the person who works in the next lab over drives me nuts. Especially when we likely have much in common.

So what's a guy to do to break through these barriers of stupidity? Borrow shit.

That's right, start asking for stuff. Doesn't matter if you need it or not. After about 4 months of lab-to-lab silence I decided that I was going to march into the other labs and start asking for the lab equivalent of a cup of sugar. Who cares that I had a pound of sugar on my bench, no one minds giving out a bit of sugar and the real mission wasn't to get reagents anyway. No, it was ninja ice breaking with the added benefit of the return visit to replenish the sugar once ours "came in".

It's easy to put on blinders when you work a lot in a lab. Maybe you have all the friends that you need either in your group or outside the work environment, but nothing bad has ever become of a sincere effort to get to know those around you and my efforts ended up paying off when I actually did need to borrow something.

Give it a try and tell me I'm wrong.


  1. This works very well, although I happened onto it by accident (I really needed a cup of sugar at one point). I've now gotten to know just about everyone in a department that doesn't always play well together. Good connections to have if you ask me...

  2. I was involved in setting up a new lab last year. Borrowing stuff not only helped me get my experiments up and running, but helped me meet many people in the department and has lead to some growing collaborations.

  3. Really important point, PLS. I definitely borrowed sugar, but also made a point of setting up a quick lunch or coffee once a week with different colleagues to get to know them and their work better. This practice has been incredibly valuable and helpful.

  4. You just described my previous department to a "T". Your idea sounds like a good one though! Did you get anyone from your group giving you funny looks for talking to "outsiders"?

  5. nothing bad has ever become of a sincere effort to get to know those around you


  6. caveat: unless the PIs are fighting and/or competing and they think talking to postdocs in other labs means you're consorting with the enemy.

    Just sayin.

  7. Nice. I just invited a seminar speaker who will be ZOMGBBQ!!!AWESOME!!! for the chemists and biologists in our department AND the evo/ecology department folks that we never mix with. I do feel like a ninja!

  8. So while science may not be a carebears tea party, perhaps it's a ninja one?

  9. Fact. Ninjas are at every party, whether you know it or not.