The continued adventures of Superhero Dr. PhD

A man clutches his chest in a busy restaurant. He slumps. A vase crashes to the floor. His wife screams. The waiter cries, “Is there a doctor in the house?” Dr. PhD cringes, then raises her hand, “Check please!” M’eh, this is a job for superhero Dr. MD.

Dr. PhD startles awake. Of course it was just a dream. When would Dr. PhD be at restaurant expensive enough to have vases on the tables? Scavenging free pizza after a seminar, picking up take-out from the Whole Foods deli, or at the bar on trivia night- those are all more realistic scenarios for Dr. PhD. One day a situation will arise when Dr. PhD’s expertise is needed in an emergency. Surely someday knowing the electron transfer pathway within Photosystem II and its protein components will come in handy, right? Yes, Dr. PhD is one you’d want on your team for trivia night.

Today: the continued adventures of Dr. PhD

We find Dr. PhD busy in the lab washing western blots. Before she can trek downstairs to the dark room with the x-ray developer, Tenured PI approaches her. “I’m going on vacation for two weeks with Research Associate,*” he says. “You’ll be in charge while I’m gone. If you’re not here, Dr. PhD-β will be in charge. If she’s not around, hopefully Grad Assistant’s VISA will come through so she can come back to the U.S. Don’t leave Undergraduate Pre-med Minion** on his own. My cat Sigma falls before him in the chain of command.” “But, PI, Sigma’s been dead for 20 years,” says Dr. PhD. Tenured PI only shoots back an icy stare between his thick-lensed glasses and even thicker eyebrows. Fortunately, Dr. PhD has worked with him long enough to understand his humor. He’s not being that serious, besides he knows reanimation is not one of Dr. PhD’s superpowers. Dr. PhD shakes her head and smiles, “Understood.”

And so Dr. PhD assumes her watch over the lab. The other lab members had been given their instructions. In theory, they knew what to do, but the onslaught of questions starts not long after Tenured PI and Research Associate have boarded their plane. Minion has to probe his western blots with a new antibody, well really an old one that hasn’t been used for a decade. “Where is the antibody?” Minion asks. Dr. PhD uses her superpowers to decipher the lab’s antibody list and cross-reference this with the freezer box notations. From the frosty depths, a tube is found; its contents are older than Minion. Dr. PhD explains how to perform the control experiment, but the thought of running extra gels dismays Minion. Returning from the dark room several days later, he looks distraught. “It just doesn’t work. Look.” Dr. PhD looks at the film in the portrait orientation as it is handed to her. Indeed, the film does not seem to show any signal that could be construed as protein bands. Dr. PhD summons her analytical superpowers by squinting. “Wait, could the orientation be this way (landscape)? And could you have possibly gotten the orientation of the middle panel upside down?” she asks. “Yes!” replies Minion. “Then those are your bands down there.” asserts Dr. PhD. Crisis averted.

Meanwhile, Grad Assistant has successfully navigated the governmental bureaucracy required for her VISA renewal and has returned to the lab. At first there are only rare sightings and traces of physical evidence that she has been in the lab, but then as the jetlag wears off she keeps ‘normal’ hours that overlap with the rest of the group. She gears up for experimentation that has been on hold for six weeks. In consultation with Dr. PhD, she has questions. Dr. PhD summons all of her memory superpower to provide answers. When data from preliminary experiments come in, there is another consultation. This time Dr. PhD channels her attention-to-detail superpower, “Of course, I remember exactly what your samples were from your multistep biochemical preparation and the order you ran them on your gel.”

On top of this, the on-campus scientific store stopped re-stocking its inventory as the University launches their new on-line procurement system for ordering supplies. Yes, Dr. PhD can attend a three hour training session. Will the lab be OK? Dr. PhD is concerned because Minion has another experiment to set up and needs supervision. “Where is that Minion?” Undoubtedly, feeding Tenured PI’s cats (not Sigma, of course, but the current feline family). Well, he knows when Dr. PhD is available and has been warned how long the experiment will take for all of his samples. Upon her return, Dr. PhD finds Minion in the lab preparing his samples for the experiment. Hours pass; calculations are completed and double checked. Dr. PhD begins to show minion how to perform a routine measurement on the fluorometer. Upon returning from the other lab room to get a reagent, Dr. PhD senses something is terribly wrong. Where is the data that should have been collected and waiting on the computer screen? The instrument is not working with the default parameters. Dr. PhD-β is consulted, since she was the last one to use it without problems. No, this is something new. Other protocols are tried. Some work. Some fail. The one Minion needs still fails. At this point Dr. PhD feels her superpowers fading. Damn. Her kryptonite is closing in- the hour in which she must leave to commute back in time to pick up Jr-PhD before his daycare starts charging by the minute. All of their efforts fail. “I will contact technical support and deal with this later. Just put your samples in the freezer, Minion,” Dr. PhD says. In a flash, Dr. PhD is gone, out of the door, morphed from her academic superhero status into superhero mommy mode as she races away in her crossover vehicle littered with cheap plastic toys and empty juice boxes.

In the final days at the helm, Dr. PhD summons all of her powers to focus on writing a manuscript of her latest data and transforming a lab notebook’s-worth of other data into a poster presentation for a meeting. Tenured PI and Research Associate will be ready to proof the drafts upon their return. Dr. PhD must also lead the Journal Club discussion this week- finding a suitable article and converting it into a coherent presentation by Friday. There is more troubleshooting of that dysfunctional fluorometer. Just then, Tenured PI phones the lab, “I’m back. Bring the cart down to pick up the repaired computer tower and bring it back to the office.” “I’m on my way,” Dr. PhD replies. It seems that feats of strength are required even for a Superhero PhD.

“So how were things here?” Tenured PI asks as he scans the lab for evidence of catastrophe. He finds none. “Oh, pretty normal. The fluorometer is not completely functional, but I’m in contact with technical support.” replies Dr. PhD. Tenured PI grumbles then asks, “Fine, now where is Minion? I need the other data he was working on for my poster presentation.”

What will happen next? Where is that Minion?*** Will the fluorometer be fixed? Will the manuscript be accepted for publication? Stay tuned for the continued adventures of Dr. PhD.


*It’s not that scandalous, they have been married for their entire working career. The implication is just that the lab will be without decades of expertise for the next two weeks.

**OK, well he’s been converted such that he isn’t Pre-med any more. Let the record show that Minion was never Pre-med.

***Good luck on the GRE next week Minion. You’ll fit into graduate school and the wider research world just fine.


One thought on “The continued adventures of Superhero Dr. PhD

  1. Pingback: The continued adventures of Dr. PhD | New Under The Sun Blog

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