Supporting conversations

During a recent conversation with a technician, let’s call him ‘Cherry Maker’ (CM, not to be confused with cherry picker), I wanted to know what being support staff meant to him. “Assimilation.” he answered, and after seeing my puzzled face, he added: “It’s becoming what you always dreaded as a researcher.” “Well”, I said, “isn’t that a bit dramatic?” CM: “No! I find it quite funny. When I was a young grad student a long time ago, I found the sight of a technician going home at 5, irrespective of the status of the experiment, horrifying. Same when a technician’s interest in a paper did not go beyond his/her own contribution.”

The distorted views of academia. This image is really spot on (@biomatushik – http://sotak.info/sci.jpg)

“Now” he said with an ironic smile, “I can just feel those looks from grad students as soon as I leave for home at around 5! Look Bojk,” CM said in his usual tongue-in-cheek manner, “you PhDs like to think it’s all about you and your research, but as a technician you have come to realize that hierarchy and continuity come first, then comes a whole lot of nothing and other stuff, and then come the PhDs…” Me: “So where’s the assimilation part in this and why is this funny?” CM: “Because I realize now that every researcher-turned-support unavoidably assimilates towards this other way of thinking, irrespective of the initial world view. It’s nurture pur sang!”

Interesting sense of humor, that Cherry Maker, I guess that also comes with the years. What I also wondered was: what makes someone really good at their support job? In my eyes, many of the most talented scientists amongst us would fail miserably at the jobs of the support staff.

Many times during the past couple of years I have witnessed the craftsmanship of the supporting staff at its best: Of course most of us grad students would be totally lost without being able to rely on the vast pool of knowledge and skill of the many Kavli technicians. And the organization of the myriad of Kavli events: is there anyone who honestly believes this would be in safe hands with us scientists? Take for example the seemingly insignificant detail concerning the division of hotel rooms during the recent Nanofront retreat: where many of us would have simply met the basic requirement of splitting up the sexes and making a division in alphabetical order, some support staff member actually went through the effort of placing us in rooms based on existing friendships or matching characters. A sense of social tact I found quite remarkable.

After pausing for a moment CM said: “Doesn’t that also have to do with the fact that we all know each other?” Me: “Good point, I guess our organization is still smaller than Dunbar’s number.” CM: “Say what?” Me: “Well, a certain Dr. Dunbar allegedly found that the social coherence you are referring to starts to fall apart above group sizes of 150.” Besides the fact that we might need to start worrying about further department growth, we both agreed that it is the individuals in an organization who deserve credit for actually giving it their own personal touch. In that sense I think us non-self-supporting scientists are in good hands here.

My 9th and last contribution to the Kavli Newsletter, June 2015.

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