Friction: Stories of difficult relationships in science

This week, we bring you two stories of difficult professional relationships in science, whether in the field or in the lab.

Part 1: As a young biology student, Margot Wohl is excited to spend a summer in the field, but her colleague expects her to do all the work.

Jump to Margot’s story >>

Margot Wohl hails from Bel Air, Maryland but found her spirit city is Philadelphia when she moved their to study biology at the University of Pennsylvania. Now she is pursuing a PhD in neuroscience at UC San Diego where she confirms daily that the sun sets in the West and then retreats to her science cave for the night. Her research centers on how brain cells and the molecules they exchange give rise to aggressive behaviors in fruit flies. She enjoys all experiences that make her feel as though she is not on the planet Earth. In her free time she can be found playing tennis, doting on her cat to which she has allergies and taking pictures of insects she finds [hashtag insectagrams]. Also, Margot produces a podcast called Salk Talk for which she weaves together character vignettes of up and coming scientists.

Part 2: Physics major Stephanie Loeb travels to Singapore to study nanoparticles, but is intimidated by her enigmatic project leader.

Jump to Stephanie’s story >>

Stephanie Loeb is a PhD candidate in Environmental Engineering at Yale University. She came to Yale with the support of a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Fellowship to study surface plasmon resonance and the photothermal properties of nanomaterials for solar water treatment. Prior to moving to the US, Stephanie completed an undergraduate degree in Physics and Nanoscience jointly with the University of Toronto and the National University of Singapore, as well as a Master's of Applied Science in Environmental Engineering at the University of Toronto. She is an avid story listener, and first-time story teller.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Margot Wohl

So it was my sophomore year of college.  It was the summer, and I was about to embark on my first real foray into science.  I was really excited and I had no idea what to expect.  In fact, I wasn’t sure how I really got there.  I've always really felt more like an observer for everything, although this kind of manifested itself in my childhood pastimes, which were really just watching things.  So watching wildlife, stargazing, just, like, looking at things.  And this really made it into how I also felt like I just was always observing my own life, that I didn’t really have agency and control over it. 

But I found myself about to do some fieldwork in upstate New York in Millbrook, which was a small town of about fourteen hundred people, and it was home to the abandoned Bennett School for Girls, where rich East Coasters would take their daughters to learn about domestic science.  But I felt really fortunate that I lived in a time where I could learn about hard science and where I had really strong female role models that had done really amazing things even though they were in male-dominated fields, like my grandmother, who started her own architecture practice, and my mother, who was an eye surgeon and she started her own medical practice.  Yet even with these role models, I really didn’t feel like I was going to be one of those women who was really strong and was able to kind of set their own path. 

But back to the science of what I was doing, my first time out in the field, I was studying Lyme disease.  I was working for a professor at my university and we were going out -- we had this idea.  So Lyme disease, I don't know if you know much about it, but it’s a bacteria-borne disease but often it’s carried through ticks.  So they'll feed on some hosts, maybe like mice or deer, that have the bacteria, then they fall off of those, come and find us, bite us and give us this wonderful bacteria that, if you don’t really catch right away, can lead to some pretty debilitating effects. 

So the idea of this science project was what if we go in and we immunize the mice and then they're not able to give the bacteria to the ticks and then the ticks won’t give it to us?  So I thought, Wow, this is a really great idea.  This is really cool. 

And the way that we would do this is we would go out in the evening around sunset and we’d set the traps.  We’d put these little balls of oatmeal spiked with dead bacteria in it and in the morning we would come.  The mice would come in through the evening and they would eat the oatmeal, and then we would check the traps.  Of course, we had all our controls.  The non-spiked oatmeal, all that sort of stuff. 

It was really fun because when we’d go in the morning and you open the trap, you would not know what you were going to find.  It was like Christmas every morning, except I’m Jewish, and also, instead of wearing pajamas, I was wearing this, like, huge Tyvek suit that I had to tuck into my socks and my gloves. Pretty suffocating. 

So we’d open the traps and sometimes there’d be chipmunks and, other times, there’d be flying squirrels, and then sometimes there’d be mice.  Like that’s what we’re studying.  That’s great.  All this is to say that I was having a really good time and I really felt in my element outside collecting samples, collecting data.  I thought, Maybe this is for me, this science thing.  Like, I could do this. 

And this was a really small-scale operation so there was me and a post-doc, or I should say a post-doc and I.  The boss, the professor from the university, came up and he trained us for a couple of days.  Then he was like, “All right, I’m out.  I’m going to Russia for six weeks.  You're not going to be able to contact me.” 

I was pretty naïve and I had no idea, no forethought to say like, “Hey, why don’t we write up a contract?”  Or like, “Who do I even talk to if something isn’t quite right?”  I didn’t know that these were the kind of things that you really want to ask when you’re about to be left alone in upstate New York without a boss. 

The boss did not get to meet the third addition to our team, who was hired by a colleague.  I’m just going to call him Biff.  Not his real name.  Back to the Future, anyone?  Yeah, it’s very foreboding.  It’s very foreshadowing.  And my boss never got to meet this guy because he was in Russia.  I can only assume he was, like, slamming back some vodka, wrestling some bears. 

But Biff came in and, first day, we go out into the field.  We’re going to train Biff on how to deal with these mice.  So we go to look in the trap, get the first mouse, and I say, “Okay, you're just gonna go, you're gonna take them by the tail.  You put it on your thigh and then hold it by the scruff.  It’s really, like, not that terrifying.”  And the guy, he goes in for the mouse and he's so scared that he's kind of shaking.  And he just flings the mouse as far as he can fling it, and it’s like, “I’m home free,” scurrying away. 

I’m like, “Oh, wow.  This guy is terrified of mice.”

So we go to the second trap and I’m like, “Hey, just take some deep breaths.  It’s gonna be okay.”  So the second mouse he goes in and he just squeezes it really hard and drops it.  This is weird like backwards fight-or-flight kind of response going on. 

So this first day left me really perplexed.  Why was this guy, why was he hired?  Who is this guy?  How did he get here?  Were his resumes mixed up?  Was this like a favor for a friend?  I have no idea how this guy got here.  But eventually he gets over this fear.

However, there are like other glaring issues with this employee.  For instance, he will knock over the vials.  He's very careless and he doesn’t really seem to care at all about the research, which I, at the time, and still do, I care about the research a lot. 

So I took on a lot of his responsibilities.  So I would collect the ticks for him or I would enter his data because he couldn’t align columns on the spreadsheet.  I just wanted to make sure that it all went well because it’s science and it’s important.  I didn’t really mind that that much.  I was like a go-getter and that didn’t really bother me that much. 

Working extra with the vermin outside was not the big deal.  It was the vermin inside that really was getting to me.  This meaning I’m referring to the fact that we all lived in a house together, the three of us, with a shared kitchen and bathroom in this isolated house, kind of middle of nowhere. 

And this guy Biff, he either recently or was still maybe living with his parents.  He was in his mid-thirties.  He liked to remind me of how his mom did all of his dishes for him, did all of his laundry, all of his cleaning, and that that was kind of how he thought women should be. 

I had never experienced sexism this blatant.  So at first I was like this is almost comical, in a way.  And you know what I can do is I can just ignore this and be like, “This is almost so ridiculous, it’s funny. And I should just totally ignore it.”  That works for a while but I have to say that, over time, I was really starting to get bothered by it and it was starting to bring up feelings of… kind of made me feel small and made me feel powerless. 

I didn’t talk back to him, so I didn’t say like, “Hey, this is making me feel really uncomfortable,” or like, “Hey, this isn’t cool.  This is not something you can do.”  I didn’t feel as though confrontation was something that I was comfortable with, and I didn’t really feel like I had a voice. 

I won’t say that… this sounds like a bummer, and the whole summer wasn’t a bummer.  There were other things to take my mind off of this negative presence.  So I got tons of reading done.  It was very lonely.  So lots of, like, singular activities were done.  Lots of reading.  I definitely kept this local Blockbuster in business.  It’s like around the time Blockbusters were going down and I was keeping this one, singlehandedly, alive watching all the Criterion Collection movies. 

Also, I got to eat my lunches in front of this beautiful, beautiful, decaying, abandoned school for girls.  I would just always try to hype myself up, get over my fear of asbestos and trespassing to go in there, which I never got over. 

But like all things that you try to put away and ignore, at some point, my time with Biff, it came to a boil, basically.  My anger really came to the surface. 

It was just one day, it was a particularly hot day.  We were really sweaty after collecting the mice and we come home and his dishes are in the sink.  I decide to speak up about it and I say like, “Hey, Biff, could you please do your dishes?  I really don’t want to, like, do them and I would really like it if you could do that so I could cook in the kitchen.” 

He responds to me very quickly and he says, “You're so lazy.  You don’t do any work.” 

At that point, I'd just been doing all of his work and so this flood of anger rushes through me, which is something I’m not used to feeling.  I don't know how you guys experience anger, but for me, anger is a very foreign feeling. 

So I was like, “What is this feeling?”  It was so visceral and yet I couldn’t say anything and I couldn’t do anything.  I think, like, I imagined punching him, but I knew that that was something I wasn’t capable of.  So instead, tears started streaming down my face.  I turned around and I walked to my car and I just drove. 

I was probably listening to some really moody music, like some Radiohead or something.  I stop in a parking lot maybe fifteen minutes up the road, empty parking lot, and I just scream as loud as I can.  No one can hear you when you're in the middle of nowhere.  If a tree falls, if a lady screams in a parking lot…

Did I really scream?  I don't know. 

I turn back and I go back to the house and I don’t say anything about it.  I take the anger and I put it in a ball and I kind of stuff it away somewhere inside where it can be latent and where it feels most comfortable for me. 

I say, “You know what?  The summer is going to come to an end.  The ticks, they will feed.  They will become engorged.  They will fall off, find their new host.  This summer will come to an end.” 

In fact, that did happen.  My boss came back about two weeks before the end of the summer, and I think the post-doc said something about, “Hey, this guy, he's really not good at his job.”  My boss called the colleague, fired this guy, and so I had two weeks of peace.  But I never did say anything about, “Hey, this guy actually was making me feel really uncomfortable,” because I didn’t really think it would matter.  I didn’t think that I mattered that much in this scenario, this undergraduate, young researcher, that I really had a voice in this. 

I get back to my university and so I say to my boss, “Okay, where’s that stipend you said youwould pay me?”  And he says, “Well, actually, I think there's this technicality where if you want to do your senior thesis research in my lab I actually can’t pay you money.” 

So I say, “Well, then I won’t do my research in your lab for senior year, but you did say that you would pay me for this summer.”  And he said no.  At the time, I didn’t understand that I had some resources at my… that I could have gone to see and done something about it, but I didn’t know.  And I didn’t know that I had a voice and that I could really take control of this situation. 

So I did what I did with Biff and I turned around and I left.  I didn’t come back to the lab.  I could have seen this as a sign that science is not a good place for me, but I like to think that it was these people that were abusing their power and there were just a few bad eggs of people who weren’t really treating me with respect. 

I didn’t find my voice that summer.  I didn’t have the courage to speak up.  I kind of like lumbered through my twenties trying to build up my courage, build up my voice, get some more confidence.  There were other people that I would face along the way that would try to discourage me from science, say like, “You're not smart enough.”  “There's this quality about you that isn’t good for science.”  I didn’t always speak up to them, but one thing that I do feel like I did, the one way that I really feel like I did stand up for myself is that I didn’t quit.  I didn’t quit science. 

Now, I’m a fourth-year PhD student in neuroscience at UC San Diego, and I’m still working towards finding my worth, finding my voice.  But I do have the confidence that, at some point, I can, too, be like my grandmother and mother and that is, I could be a nasty woman. 

So thank you. 

Part 2: Stephanie Loeb

So today, I’m going to share with you guys the story about how I had to hit rock bottom so that I could learn to love science again. 

So I arrived in Singapore just after midnight.  I leave the airport.  The air is warm and balmy and it’s completely different and completely exciting.  So at this point in my life, I’m nineteen years old and I’m about to start my sophomore semester abroad at the National University of Singapore. 

I’m also a confused physics major.  So I decided to study physics I think, firstly, because deep down, like all scientists, I secretly want to be an astronaut.  I think this is the best way to go about doing it.  But also I was really good at physics.  A lot of people thought physics was really hard, so for me this made physics special. 

Although I’m enjoying it, I’m kind of fumbling my way through my first year and a half of university so I need this semester abroad to really figure out what I want to do with my life.  So I’m trying to broaden my mind while also narrowing my academic focus.  Suffice it to say, my expectations are really high. 

So the whole point of the semester is I’m supposed to be in Singapore earning a minor in nano science.  I'll be taking classes and those other sorts of routine things, but the major crux of this semester abroad is I’m going to be doing a research project.  This research project involves investigating the toxic effects of metal oxide and nano particles in red blood cells. 

So for my first day in lab, I arrive and I learn that I’m going to be working with a senior research associate.  Her name is Jane.  Jane is amazing.  She's tall and she's beautiful and she's brilliant.  She knows everything and she absolutely terrifies me.  She's been working with the lab for about twenty-five years.  She's probably at least twenty years my senior, and she knows everything about everything. 

She's also really a little bit hard to work with.  So my interactions with her are a little bit stressful.  She is chronically impatient.  When I ask her about questions in the lab her answer is usually, “Did you read the papers I sent you?”  These sorts of things. 

So it’s a bit of a stressful interaction but I really, really, really wanted Jane to like me.  So the first day, I show up to work.  I’m ready to go, I've got my lab coat, and she hands me a warm vial of red blood.  I’m holding it, and this week we’re going to be starting doing our first experiments.  We’re going to be exposing this blood to metal oxide and nano particles and we’re going to be testing the toxicity that might occur through either cell lysis or hemagglutination. 

And the reason we want to look at this is because, about this time, nano particles are being used in a lot of different applications in the industry.  So you might have silver nano particles in your socks because they're antimicrobial.  There's also titanium dioxide nano particles in your sunscreen.  So there's lots of easy ways for them to get into your blood stream so we want to mimic that by taking fresh human blood cells, exposing them to these particles, and find out what happens. 

So I’m going to be doing a lot of these experiments while I’m in Singapore. 

So the second week I arrive, I get to the lab, she gives me the same warm vial of red blood.  I’m looking at the vial and all of a sudden I’m like, “I don't know where this comes from.”  So I ask Jane, like, “Jane, where did you get this blood?” because I’m thinking in my head it’s still warm.  It didn’t come out of an incubator.  I know we need fresh red blood cells, so this seems like a very interesting question. 

So she kind of gestures over to the office nearby.  She does a little wave and she says today her friend was a volunteer.  And this man kind of pokes his head out from behind the counter and he gives me a wave and a little laugh, and I was like, “Oh, great.  This is his blood.” 

So we go ahead and do the experiment and everything is going really well.  Then the next week, this is the third week in the lab, I show up in the morning. I’m a little bit early.  Nobody is there yet, and there's no blood waiting for me.  Jane shows up a little later and I ask her about it. 

I’m like, “I know I need to do a test because I've got a new kind of nano particle.  I want to see if it [causes lysis in] red blood cells,” and she says, “Oh, I'll get my friend to volunteer.  You can run up to the clinic and meet him there and there he’ll give you the blood.” 

So I’m like, “All right.  That sounds fine.”  I race up to the clinic, and when I get there, I recognize her friend immediately.  It’s the same man from last week.  So I’m immediately feeling kind of guilty, really awkward.  He's giving me his own blood to run what I’m thinking are really silly experiments.  What if I mess them up?  What if I don’t get any results?  What if I drop his blood all over the floor?  Any number of horrible things can happen, and I’m really worried about letting this guy give me his blood every week for the next six months. 

So I look up at him and I say, “Would you like me to volunteer today?  Is it okay if I volunteer for this experiment?”  And he looks kind of amused, but in the end, he says, “Sure, why not.” 

So he makes me sign a number of forms and then I take his place in the chair at the clinic and we both watch silently as the nurse draws the blood from my arm and then hands it back to me in this same, sterile, warm vial. 

But when I get back to the lab, I got my blood in my hand and I’m ready to do my experiment, I see Jane.  And I can tell immediately that something is wrong.  Jane is really angry.  She says that I've wasted her friend’s time.  He went up to the clinic to offer blood for the experiment and instead I gave mine.  She says that I've embarrassed her and that I never should have done this. 

I want to explain to her I just feel really guilty using the blood over and over again, but she's not really listening.  I don't really know what to say.  Jane and I were not having the best relationship to begin with, and she's my mentor and I don't really know what else to say.  So I just go about doing the experiment, but, from then on, week after week, if I wanted to do the experiment there's no more volunteers.  I have to go up to the clinic, have my blood drawn, given back to me, and go run the experiments. 

So this time you might think the story is sounding a little dark, like young girl goes on adventure in foreign country and has to have her own blood drawn for science experiment, but it’s not all bad.  I’m meeting a lot of great people.  I've made a lot of friends in my classes and in my dorm.  We’re going on all these great adventures on the weekend, traveling all over Southeast Asia.  Even my relationship with Jane becomes somewhat comedic. 

So she's a little bit difficult for me to deal with, but I’m trying my best.  I think there's a lot of cultural and generational barriers.  She has this habit when I would ask her a question in the lab something like, “Hey, Jane, should I autoclave this after using it?”  And she would respond by nodding her head in a quick figure eight.  This would leave me totally bewildered.  I would be like, “Yes?  No?  Figure eight?  I don't know what that means.” 

She also had this really amazing habit of ending all her emails with dot-dot-dot, like three periods in a row.  So I'd send her a question like, “How does this data set look?  Do you think we need more experiments to get the right number of replicates?”  And she would just say, “No...”  As you might imagine, this is a very intense source of anxiety for me. 

Even the bloodletting, which we grew to call it, started to be a little bit of a joke.  Some of my friends, my classmates, noticed that I had these track marks on my arm, and they were like, “Stephanie, are you doing heavy drugs,” which was really funny in the context Singapore has really, really harsh minimum mandatory sentences for drug use.  So that was kind of funny even within that context. 

I also started to get really engaged about doing experiments on my own blood.  Like I’m feeling I’m really a part of this research.  Every day I had to use a cell counter to count the number of red blood cells in each sample I was taking.  One day, after a weekend trip to Indonesia, I get back and I’m looking at my cells under the microscope and they look super, super weird.  So they're all spidery and kind of looking up at me totally different.  I start to convince myself for like a full five minutes that I'd contracted some sort of really serious blood-borne illness, but it turns out I was just using a dirty microscope slide. 

So by this time, my experience in the lab starts to be pretty routine.  Get up in the morning, go to the clinic, have my blood taken, get back to the lab, extract, analyze, incubate, test the samples.  But one day, I’m working in the lab and it’s pretty quiet, so it’s probably around lunchtime.  I realize that my deionized water bottle is empty.  I know I need deinonized water for this experiment.  I can’t use tap water because it’s got chlorine in it, so I go over to the secondary tank and I see that it’s also empty.  I realize that this hasn’t happened before and I have no idea where they fill this tank from. 

So I’m looking around and there's nobody in the lab, so there's nobody to ask.  But luckily, there's one of these nice, blue and clear wash bottles that any wet chemist would certainly be familiar with it, and it says Distilled Water in nice, happy letters on the side.  So I was like, “Perfect.  This is exactly what I need.  I only need a few milliliters of it and I will return it right back.” 

So I take the wash bottle to my station and I start doing the experiment and people start filing back in from lunch.  All of a sudden, I look over and Jane is right behind me.  She's watching me do the experiment and she's holding the distilled water bottle.  She's looking at it and she's looking at me and she says, “Do you know what’s in this?”  And I’m thinking in my head, Yeah, it’s distilled water.  I’m pretty sure.  But I don't want to say that because she looks really mad. 

She then asked me a question that, at that time, I found really surprising.  She says, “Did you smell it?”  And immediately my brain goes back to environmental health and safety training.  You never smell unknown chemicals, right? 

So really, really confidently I look up at her and I said, “No, I did not smell it.” 

This wasn’t the answer that she was expecting.  She's livid.  She's really, really angry.  She's holding the bottle and she says, “Why would you use something when you don’t know what it is?”  She tells me my whole experiment from the week is ruined.  She says I have to throw it out, and I can see that other members from the lab are coming back to lunch.  Everybody’s there.  Everybody’s watching. 

She looks at me and she says, “How could you have been so stupid?” 

As you might imagine, this was a really tough moment for me, and I did not know how I was going to deal… This is a Wednesday.  My humiliation in the lab happened on a Wednesday.  And I did not know how I was going to deal with Thursday morning.  But I knew how I was going to deal with Wednesday night, and that involved having many drinks. 

So I wake up Thursday morning and the sun is coming in.  I had this dorm room that looked over this beautiful tropical garden, and I look out on my windowsill and all my clothes from last night are sitting there.  And there's this little bird hopping along and he's picking up little bits of vomit, and he's just taken a nice big bird shit right in my shoes.  All of a sudden I’m like, “This is rock bottom.” 

Science had always felt special to me because I was good at it, and, all of a sudden, I was trying my hardest and I was failing at everything.  I’m probably also losing way too much blood.  I knew that science still was there in the world, that there are all these great equations and ways of describing everything from the motion of the moon to the motion of a marble to these tiny nano particles that I’m trying to work with.  I used to have it all right there at my fingertips and suddenly I felt like it was all beyond my grasp, and I was devastated. 

So I get up, shower, got to go to class.  I've got four hours of nano chemistry and spectroscopy methods lectures, and by 8:30 I’m sitting on my computer Googling how to switch my major to anthropology because I have made the executive decision that science sucks. 

So at this point, I’m pretty far in the semester.  I've only got about a month left and I've decided I’m just going to get in and get out.  I look at the data I've taken so far and I see that I probably only need one or two more experiments to try and get out.  So I go to the lab in the evenings and at lunch when I’m sure no one is going to be there.  I get the rest of the data and my final deliverable for this is a report.  It’s supposed to be a long report putting together all my research. So I put it all together and then I send it off to Jane for review.  Right after I send it off, I’m taken away for a weekend trip to Cambodia with some of my friends. 

So on my trip I kind of got this report in the back of my head and so, after like a great day of going to look at all these temples and having all these amazing experiences, I separate from my friends and I’m like, “I’m going to go to an internet café.  I’m going to check my email.” Because I have to know what’s going on. 

So as I’m sitting there, the internet is quite painfully slow, an email pops up and I see that Jane has gone through my report.  The email just has one line in it and it just says, Stephanie, you have been a good and hardworking student.  P.S.  I have some edits.

So I have a lot of time to reflect as I’m sitting alone in this internet café while my thirty-page document with over a hundred comments slowly loads and, for the first time ever, as I’m kind of going over the things she's written, I don't feel so alone.  I feel like her criticism is collaboration.  And I realized what I’m doing is actually just a tiny contribution to her life’s work, that she had been giving her blood for these experiments long before I came along and that she wants us to work together and it matters to her that much, and that’s why she's so hard on me. 

So in the end, that experience of putting my blood, sweat, and tears into the research project felt more special than science had ever felt before.