A weeklong electronic journal.
Nov. 24 1998 3:30 AM


The Man in the White Coat?


       A photographer was around last Friday, working on the center's annual report. She wanted me to don the traditional white lab coat for the usual "in lab shot." I declined, partly to avoid looking like a demented ice-cream salesman but more because I always chuckle whenever I see any of my colleagues on television or in the newspaper, resplendent in the "scientist's uniform." In the real world, these guys and gals last saw the working end of a pipette years ago. The only time they wear a white coat nowadays is when the building's heating is on the blink again, or when they've been caught in the rain and need something to hide their red silk thong underwear. And I'm no different (except for the thong, of course). All I do on a daily basis is talk, read, and type. My principal occupational health hazard is wearing the ends of two fingers to a stub sending out e-mails. Why is this?
       Well, being a scientist is a bit like being in the military. As one rises up the food chain, other people do one's dirty work. There aren't many generals who get strung out on the barbed wire in front of a machine-gun nest, are there? Rankwise, I am now somewhere around a colonel, judging from the uniforms my friends in the Army's AIDS program sometimes wear (I always give them a vigorous salute, the nature of which is conditional upon the contents of their last research paper). Of course, a military man is only as good as his troops, and I am extremely fortunate to have been blessed with a splendid set of privates. These gallant folks enable me to hold my own among the other colonels and generals, and I am thankful for it.
       I wander from my office to the lab outside, principally to gossip, partly for the relatively vigorous exercise, musing on the different ways of running a group. A few researchers climb up the greasy pole by trampling on the piled-up corpses of post-docs, students, and technicians, who are mere instruments of the supreme will. Others set lab members into internal competition, with the winner taking the spoils, the loser the shame. Fortunately, these styles are not the norm, and I don't adopt them. My principle is simple: Recruit smart people, point them in the right direction, facilitate their activities, encourage them to work together, and let them get on with it. They do well, I do well; everybody's happy. My thoughts are interrupted by hysterical peals of laughter from the adjacent office, where Tanya the Serb and Alexandra the Austrian, two ballsy and talented senior post-docs, are giggling like pre-pubescent schoolgirls over an e-mail. The hysteria spreads to the others in the lab, and I go to find out what it's all about. Turns out that I'd sent a message over the center's network this morning asking others to join our lab trip to see There's Something About Mary but wrote "Marty" by mistake. Marty Markowitz, our balding clinical director, had replied saying he appreciated the thought but never needs to use hair gel. Everyone's a target for piss-taking, and this time it's my turn.
       Our lab resembles the United Nations; at one time, we could have re-fought World War I (we even had an American who joined in projects late and tried to walk off with the credit). The different nationalities all interact well, although as we sit together over lunch and plan the lab Thanksgiving party, I get a little concerned. General Tso's Chicken is to mingle with lamb rogan josh, toad-in-the-hole, and whatever the hell that awful goulash is they eat in central Europe; seems a tad idiosyncratic from a culinary perspective. Fortunately, Cindy the Southern Belle knows a turkey when she sees one, so there may be some hope for an element of traditionalism. I order in extra Pepto-Bismol, just in case.
       So, like many of my peer group, I am just an overpaid two-fingered typist, with no white coat but with acid-holed sweat shirts.