The Instructor Chronicles: Semester 1, Part 1

We last left Superhero PhD leaving the funeral of her research career for a new adventure in biochemistry laboratory instruction…

The course she was entrusted with has a really great structure- starting from cloning a gene to expressing a protein to enzymology and protein crystallization. There was just precious little time between Superhero PhD’s start date and the first day of class. She just really needed an electronic version of the manual to get it churned out for the students or instead of alcohol dehydrogenase, biochemistry majors would be working on Photosystem II* (Dr. PhD’s forte). Fortunately, Retired Instructor was willing to be incredibly helpful, she had just been out of town visiting grandchildren. There was no time for significant edits, but it was much better than the other nightmarish scenarios that flashed through Superhero PhD’s brain.

With the lab manual in hand, Superhero PhD felt confident in her prospects for successfully completing the semester’s lab exercises. There was only one thing standing in her way, the thing that stands in the way on anyone that’s ever walked into a new lab- finding out where the hell everything is. The room was lined with benches containing identical equipment, tons of cabinets filled with God knows what, and freezers and refrigerators possessing an uncalled-for amount of previous years’ samples.** If only X-ray vision were one of Superhero PhD’s superpowers! Alas, she had to rely on the lesser power she did possess- painstakingly opening each cabinet and drawer, taking an inventory and labeling the contents on lab tape.

Of course, Superhero PhD was not alone in this new quest. The class came with 4 Superhero TAs with tons of experience running the lab exercises. Thankfully, they knew the location of everything Superhero PhD couldn’t find. However, there was one major concern held among all the TAs. The great secret to their power resided in a trilogy of binders they reverently called the ‘TA Manuals.’*** These holy books were nowhere to be found since the teaching lab had been vacated by Retired Instructor. “By the power invested in me by the search committee, I swear I shall deliver these holy texts to you by the start of class.” promised Superhero PhD. So she embarked on a crusade to acquire the TA manuals. It turned out that another e-mail to Retired Instructor specifically requesting them and coordinating delivery of the precious relics between Retired Instructor’s visits to her grandchildren was all that was required. With that, the Superhero TAs set about prepping for the semester’s labs.

The first day of class started with a strange omen. As Superhero PhD was driving on campus to her usual parking spot, she nearly hit two cyclists that thought it was appropriate to blow through a 4 way stop as if they were not vehicles. It was a sign of other obstacles to come. All seemed to be well with the TAs until Dr. PhD’s second day on the job when Superhero TA #3 mentioned he was trying to graduate and had, in fact, found a local postdoc job starting immediately. Superhero PhD isn’t one to begrudge anyone with a PhD finding gainful employment, but on the inside she felt like this. On the outside, her panic was probably only a brief eye-twitch. The next day, while she was still thinking of the lies she would have to tell to recruit another TA on such short notice, a miracle of miracles happened. Since Superhero TA #3 had not yet defended, he still qualified to be a TA and his new employer was willing to accommodate his schedule such that he could be both a Superhero TA and a Dr. Postdoc simultaneously. At this news, Superhero PhD smiled and began breathing again. “Now, we are really ready for the semester,” she thought naively.

As part of her new role in the Department, Dr. PhD actually got her own office. The space was glorious by postdoc standards- 4 walls, a small window with a view of the stadium, and a door. Even when she first laid eyes on it, filled as it was with file cabinets that seemed to be holding up the walls, flood damage along the exterior wall, and ductwork to who knows where in the corner. Her eyes welled up with tears and not solely due to the decades’ worth of dust that had accumulated. Nothing comes without a price of some kind and this room came with a whole other to-do list to manage: painting, sheet-rocking, cleaning, a computer, a printer, a phone, a phone number, a key, transferring all those file cabinets to surplus property. Each job meant a separate person handling it.

The office was not move-in ready on the first day of class, but it didn’t take too long before 90% of things were in place. Surplus furniture was moved into the hallway. A better desk chair was inherited from the Departmental Office. The whiteboard was not re-hung, but Superhero PhD owns a drill and a Home Depot card, so no big deal. Someone else a Facility Services even fixed the interior side of the door knob (Superhero PhD had some concerns that she would accidentally become trapped inside when it fell off). Surely at any moment, her new students would come pouring in for office hours seeking biochemical laboratory guidance. Alas, the only person to visit her office in the first month was Tenured PI.

As the semester began, chaos ensued. Superhero PhD received a minor in Chaos Management at the Evening Academy of My Family Circus, so most of the instances about to be described in no way affected the learning environment for the students, but nevertheless took years off of Superhero PhD’s life.

Critical reagents needed to be ordered for the lab, reagents with a hefty price tag for special expedited handling. In one case, the shipping company failed to deliver the package on time and in another, the reagent was backordered indefinitely. Superhero PhD managed to get a refund of the shipping charges for the late package and Superhero TA #3 suggested doing away with the backordered reagent entirely for the other experiment.

The teaching lab uses an ancient glass still to produce the dH2O necessary for experiments. It is a finicky contraption whose secrets were relayed to Superhero PhD by Retired Instructor. The plumbing connections are not to be trusted. Sure enough, the first day Superhero PhD started it running, the tubing for the cooling water jacket source blew off as she dropped off her laptop in her office. It was a mess, but luckily no damage was done to any equipment or labs on lower floors. Dr. PhD did not even enlist the help of janitorial staff.

On the first lab exercise doing molecular biology work, Superhero TA #1 opened the ice machine to find it empty. This ice machine that had worked perfectly for all prep work until then was now broken. Again, if only Superhero PhD had more traditional superpowers like Elsa’s freezing powers she and Superhero TA #1 and #2 would not have had to cart ice from the common equipment room for every class thereafter. Perhaps it was just a maintenance error light. Superhero PhD’s power of randomly pressing buttons failed to resurrect the ice machine. The refrigeration serviceman was contracted to revive the ice machine. It was not in need of routine maintenance. It needed a completely new motor and a new unit was the most cost effective way of doing that.

Another experiment was giving us more trouble than it should have. The second transformation by electroporation to generate the expression cell line was not working. After re-making reagents and new competent cells, it turned out to be the electroporator. Luckily again, the lab had another fully functional back-up instrument.

Now that Superhero PhD’s schedule was more inflexible due to class schedules, all manner of personal emergencies seemed to occur. In her spare time, Dr. PhD’s life involves a lot of child-, pet-, and elder-care. And honestly, for someone who’s not-that-kind-of-doctor, she still ends up dealing with more bodily fluids than one can imagine. Nevertheless, quick texting allowed her to communicate with other caregivers and coordinate emergency room situations from the classroom. If only the superpower of being in two places at once was something Superhero PhD possessed, she’d have tenure a Nobel Prize by now. Since she does not possess this power, she is just ecstatic to have made it through so far without having to pay per minute overage charges for Junior PhD’s after care.

At some point Superhero PhD decided that her office was in fact stable enough without half a dozen file cabinets crammed in it. There was no way she wanted another piece of furniture in it and it was time to rid the hallway of the extras. The proper forms had to be filled out detailing the property inventory numbers for each. One perk of Superhero PhD’s new position is a handful of undergraduate minions to help with support tasks. With the forms filled out and sent away to the appropriate university office, the months-long wait for retrieval began. Upon inspection of the copies of the forms, Superhero PhD notices that her undergraduate minion was a little overzealous in listing items- not all of the furniture in the hallway was her surplus. Neighboring lab had a nice lunch table and other cabinet in the hallway for their convenience. Superhero PhD was their neighbor for less than a month and she’s already giving away their property. “I’ll just have to be on the lookout for Facility Services again.” she thinks. The next day there is a crash outside her office, the sound of metal being unceremoniously moved about. “They’re here already?!?” she thinks. She walks into the hallway to explain the mistake on the paperwork. Speaking quickly to the man in the hallway, he appears to listen briefly before signing that he is deaf. Finally, a situation appears for which Superhero PhD can summon one of her lesser-used powers- a basic understanding and use of ASL. She manages to point to the paper and the misidentified furniture and sign, “Wrong. Must Stay. Thank You.” It worked! “Now that the hallway is clear, my students will surely come to my office hours,” she thinks to herself.

Just when Superhero PhD thinks all office-related work has been completed, other workmen from Facility Services show up to replace a 6 ft stretch of plastic baseboard along the back wall where sheet rock had been replaced. Every little bit helps. While they are there, they notice that no one has re-hung Superhero PhD’s white board. They just so happen to have the appropriate clips and bolts in the truck and hang it up for her. “This will really come in handy when I have to explain biochemistry to my students during office hours,” thinks Superhero PhD.

In some ways, research labs can be like the Mafia- they never really let you leave The Family. Superhero PhD still attends the lab meetings of Tenured PI to keep tabs on the research projects she left behind, offer insightful experimental suggestions and tell others in the lab where to find things. One week both Tenured PI and Lab Manager will be absent and Superhero PhD is called upon to preside over lab meeting. Experiments are reported without much incident. Superhero PhD and the Research Team retire back to the lab. Just as she is leaving, Superhero PhD hears the one sound that strikes fear into every researcher- the piercing cry of the high temperature alarm of the -80 F freezer. Graduate Student says, “By the way, this alarm was going off before lab meeting, but it doesn’t seem to be getting better after being shut for another hour.” Superhero PhD can sense the precious biochemical samples thawing and decades of freezer stocks becoming perilously warm. There’s no way Tenured PI or Lab Manager will be around to handle this. Superhero PhD and the Research Team**** spring into action securing additional freezer space in other departmental labs’ freezers. All samples are safely stored in time. Scientific crisis averted.

Stay tuned for the next installment of Superhero PhD’s inaugural semester in the Instructor Chronicles. How can she be Fast. And. Cold. without a functional ice machine? What will become of Tenured PI’s freezer? Will students ever come to her office hours? Is anybody really learning anything about biochemistry? What new slings and arrows of outrageous fortune await Superhero PhD and her TAs for the remainder of the semester? All of these questions will be answered in the next episode of the Instructor Chronicles.


*Working with a large membrane protein complex whose substrates are water and light definitely qualifies as the deep end of the biochemistry techniques pool, so it’s probably not the best place to start.

**They took Rule #2 to the extreme, even for molecular biology samples and cultures that could never hope to be resurrected.

***The TAs were awesome apart from the TA Manual, but it contains all manner of useful information for managing the course that makes their lives a lot easier.

****Collectively, the new name for the group is the Chlorophyll-a Team. Homage to @AmeliaRWright who came up with that gem for #ScienceAMovieTitle. When I have spare time, I’ll write a spin-off with this title.


2 thoughts on “The Instructor Chronicles: Semester 1, Part 1

  1. Laurie

    I can say with >100% certainty (p=1/infinity) that tenured PI and lab manager had not galavanted off to the hospital to have a good time while Super Ph.D was dealing with the freezer!!!

  2. Pingback: The Instructor Chronicles: Semester 1, Part 2 | New Under The Sun Blog

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