Friday, August 19, 2016

A Different Kind of Tumor

My season of summer conferences is over for the year, which included two Gordon Research Conferences (GRCs). I've come to enjoy the intensive networking and animated scientific discussions at these conferences - but I'm always reminded of my first GRC, in which I learned the importance of professionalism towards all academics, regardless of career stage.

I was a fourth year postdoc and was one of five postdocs from my lab that attended this particular conference (of about 200 people). I postdoc'ed in the Langer Lab - a mega biomedical engineering lab of about 100 trainees at any given time. The Langer Lab is some kind of brand name in academics and biomedical start-ups, and I am one of many successful products of the machine. Behind the machine, though, is Bob Langer himself, who is an incredibly kind, non-assholish academic superstar who cares deeply about his trainees (aka, he is a rare bird).

At this particular GRC, I experienced what I'll call a strong anti-Langer sentiment. This surprised me because the people I was meeting didn't know me, they didn't know anything about me or my work. They just knew that they didn't like the Langer enterprise. I hadn't been to many conferences as a postdoc, and I despaired that this sentiment might permeate the rest of my career (it has and hasn't, depending on the context).

On the second day of the conference, I was viewing posters and introduced myself to an Assistant Professor whose work I found interesting. He asked me where I worked, so I told him. A disgusted look then fell upon his face as he snarled:

You people are like f**king tumors, you metastasize everywhere. And you make me sick. 

I don't remember how I responded. But I remember his exact words, and I remember my shock. I didn't understand his anger, and I didn't understand why anyone would ever say such a thing to another academic*. As a grad student and postdoc, I often got the impression that professors at conferences thought of us as disposable, temporary. That they could say whatever to us without repercussion. But I understood then what they never did, because they didn't know me: I was going somewhere. One day, I was going to be a professor, too, and I was going to remember them.

Amusingly, I was at a conference this summer, and met someone I vaguely remembered. It turned out he was at that first GRC I attended. During our conversation, he remarked, unsolicited, "It was a pretty good conference, except there were all of these Langer people there." I looked at him with amusement: "Oh really?"

He paused for a moment, and then eyed me up warily: "You're not one of them, are you?"

I smiled and said, "Indeed I am. And really, we're not all so bad."

Our conversation continued, and I'd like to think he changed his mind, if only a little bit.

The lesson here is clear: It is not uncommon to become bitter when faced with the success of others. We all deal with this. But we need to watch what we say, no matter who we're talking to. You never know when a snide remark or unkind interaction is going to come back to bite you in the ass.

*I am generally not one for schadenfreude, but I felt quite satisfied, a few years later, upon learning that this jerk had not earned tenure at his reputable university.


  1. Any kind of resent tends to be unhealthy and resentment of the success is despicable. One of the few things worse than being a loser is resenting the success of others. Yet from your story it is not clear that the resentment of the Langer lab was because of its great success. The successes of the Langer lab is one among many reasons why the lab may be disliked and probably the worse reason. It could be that the Langer lab is disliked for a 100 other reasons not directly related to it success.

  2. Agree it could be many things. Although my guess is that if Langer wasn't as successful, the vitriol wouldn't be so potent.

  3. Thankfully, in my four years as a grad student, I have never faced this kind of talk. I think it stems from jealousy and doesn't help the field one bit. A grad student today maybe a grant reviewer for you tomorrow. I like to follow my advisor in not making any enemies within the scientific community.