Mess up? Speak up!

Jun 12 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

About two-thirds of the way into our wedding celebration, J went to the bar to get me a Bijou. The Bijou is an exceptionally delicious cocktail made with gin, sweet vermouth, and green chartreuse that, when made properly, is a gorgeous medium amber in color. But when J returned, the drink he handed me was instead just clear, perhaps slightly yellow.

"This is not a Bijou," I said. "Did the bartender mishear you, maybe?" J went to investigate, and came back with the information that the bartender had run out of sweet vermouth, so he used dry instead, without mentioning this to J when he ordered. Now, as you and I both know, one cannot simply substitute dry vermouth for sweet--they're completely different things! But rather than originally tell J that he was sorry, but he wouldn't be able to have a Bijou at that moment, he tried to cover things up and pass off a sub-par (and quite different) product as the real deal.

This kind of thing was not super cool at our wedding (though see below for happy ending resolution), and it is DEFINITELY not cool in the lab. As several of us  discussed on the twitters yesterday, you HAVE to tell someone when something goes wrong. Don't try to hide it, and for sure don't try to half-assedly patch things up. Trust me, your PI will be way less mad at you if you tell her right away than if she finds out later on due to wonky data or broken equipment. In fact, she probably won't be mad at you at all! We are scientists, and we are in the business of solving problems. If you encounter an unforeseen problem in the midst of working on your planned problem-solving, find someone to help you solve that problem-within-a-problem! You simply cannot let pride or fear of embarrassment/repercussions keep you from speaking up, especially when it comes to letting the PI know about things. Don't forget that she didn't get where she is today without fucking up many, many times. Many. Really, just a ton of times.

Whenever a new person joins the lab, I make it unequivocally clear that they MUST let someone know if they're unsure about what they're doing, if they're uncomfortable doing anything, or if something didn't go the way they think it should have. I'm not trying to quash anyone's independence here, but I think an environment in which people are comfortable asking for help is important.

So, how did we solve the Great Vermouth Crisis of 2012? We found the catering head, and let her know that they'd run out of sweet vermouth. She was surprised to hear that, and after talking more with the bartender, found out that a bottle had been dropped and broken, but no one had told her. And even though it was 10pm on a Sunday, she worked her rolodex until she found a nearby venue that would sell her a bottle. And rest assured, I got my Bijou! But see? If the person capable of solving the problem had been alerted to the problem when it happened, and not hours later, so many more Bijous could have been had!

Moral of the story: if you want your lab to have Bijous, tell your PI when you drop a bottle of vermouth!

7 responses so far

  • Chad Jones says:

    This is so true. About a year ago someone was working in our lab and bumped a voltage dial on my (yes, MY) mass spec. It messed everything up horribly in a way that took me 8 or 9 FULL work days to find (it's a dial that is out of the way and rarely touched).

    When I finally found the problem she admitted to bumping it and said she just turned it back to where she thought it was. Her exact words were:

    "I just thought since you knew so much about the instrument that if it had been a problem you would have known to fix it."

    Yes, I know a lot about my instrument, but it would have been so easy to fix had I known it had been changed.

    • becca says:

      In fairness, this is a really badly engineered machine. It should not be possible to change the settings without realizing it in that kind of way. As much as most Mass Spec machines cost? Definitely should be more idiot-proof.

      Also, without getting too specific and putting my prejudices on display, I sometimes feel like there are dramatic cultural socialization differences influencing one's inclination to speak up about mistakes like this. It can be... a bit of a trial when one is the only one in the lab socialized to admit mistakes. It looks like you are the only one who ever drops bottles of vermouth!

      • Dr Becca says:

        I don't know, I feel like almost every piece of lab equipment with knobs that can be turned from a slight brush or bump.

        But I agree, becca, that the lab culture is critical to whether these mistakes get nipped in the bud or are allowed to fester. This is why I think it's the PI's duty to create that culture from the beginning, and make sure that her trainees follow along.

  • DJMH says:

    Yes! Along similar lines, best not to conceal it from your lab mates when you're having problems on shared equipment. I gnash my teeth when I spend hours trying to figure out what's gone wrong with some shared equipment, only to mention my frustration to someone else in the lab and have them say, "Oh yeah, I had a lot of trouble with that yesterday too and couldn't figure it out." Hey, guess what might have been a good idea to speak up about *yesterday*, before my precious samples were wasted??

  • KK PhD says:

    Yes. THIS. So much this.

    Whenever we train a student on a certain piece of equipment, we always tell them the common mistake that every newbie makes. It's an easy mistake that forces us to take the tool down for two days and perform maintenance. No big deal, a scheduling annoyance than anything else. But easily avoidable if they're paying attention.

    We tell them "you will make this mistake eventually, just tell us right away if you do."

    And then they make the mistake, and feel really embarrassed, but we laugh at them a little and tell them it's okay because we've ALL done it. Besides, doing it once ensures they never to do it again!

  • seventyfour says:

    In today's episode, no one should stand in the way between this BRIDEZILLA(tm) and her cocktail!

    (close up of said bride with big bloodshot eyes and nostrils flaring)


    (dramatic music- PSYCHO shower score)

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