Double checking math for the gaslit
February 6, 2015 12:38 PM   Subscribe

A math problem followed by an issue with the boss.

The math: my boss gives me 50 picomoles per microliter of human serum albumin as standard, with a molecular mass of about 66400 grams per mole. I loaded, as per his instructions, 100 microliters of that. I loaded 100 micrograms (in 100ul again) of keyhole limpet haemocyanin which has a molecular mass of 390000 grams per mole. Unless I'be goofed in the math, I loaded 332 micrograms (250 picomoles total) of HSA standard he ordered me to load. On the sample run, I loaded 100ug (39 picomoles total) of KLH. If that checks out with everyone else, awesome, please continue below and help me. If it doesn't then the following is still an issue but of a different flavor.

So there was a problem with the equipment (sample loop on the HPLC) that caused the sample of KLH to be lost. My boss blows up at me and whether he was spitting because he was so worked up or because he was chewing again, it was still a sight this chemist wishes to never see again. He was angry because I had spent two days on the KLH sample and wasted it all (ignoring my feeble "but I saved 10ul for the mass spec analysis after this looked good by RP-HPLC!"), burning time, money (<$100), and used 300% of the HSA mass to boot. "Brainlessly" "thoughtless" "stupid" etc all made appearances here.

But the math doesn't bear out, I used 1/3 the mass and was in no danger of overloading the column as he was going on about. It's a shame the sample was lost but I don't feel like there was any way for me to catch that before it happened.

So the KLH is a side project that I'm doing while waiting for the real work to pick up again. I've also brought a second HPLC back from the dead, organized things in the lab, prepped for the real work starting up again next week, successfully explored a new method to augment the real work, and read whatever I could get my hands on about HPLC (which I had no direct experience in until three months ago, I was an Acta/FPLC guy and self taught this while waiting for the product rep to show up and give lessons, which never happened). I feel like in the three months I've worked here, I've done good stuff for someone who went from life science lab to a mass spec/organic lab.

There has been one time when I did do something stupid (miscut a gel and let the labels on the tubes run off in the presence of acetone) and plenty of blowups over tiny things. Every time, he says something along the lines of, "I'm not angry just..." or "I'm not pissed with you but..." which is patently not the case. He was angry, that he calmed down 30s later while we were still talking isn't the same as not having exploded in the first place. He isn't always angry but that doesn't really matter when the stress from walking on eggshells around him accumulates.

He is my point of contact here as a contractor but weirdly I was hired by another department to work for him. I'm around this other department, am invited and attend their lab meetings, and am on good terms with their boss (my actual boss?). So I want to send my angry point of contact a polite but firm letter addressing the math issue and how the stress stemming from his outbursts is not acceptable to me. I don't want to talk about it face to face at first as, well, I am not the strongest lily in the wilting lily garden, I would rather set the tone without having to be a strong confident speaker that doesn't get railroaded by outbursts and excuses. Would that work? Are there any other lines of approach people would suggest? If this doesn't get better, should I go talk to other-department boss, the budget of whom I fall under?

I'm strangely not afraid, career wise. It's only been three months but I've self taught the industry standard instrument to what I think of as a remarkable degree (making my own programs that work, confirming separations by gel, optimizing purification). My current contract gives me two weeks pay on leaving (going to double check this in case things go way south way fast) and I live in the DC area, so a fair number of jobs for HPLC fluent life scientists.

This is so weird for me. Thanks for the help in advance everyone!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (4 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
"Brainlessly" "thoughtless" "stupid"

He surely doesn't have your permission to speak to you this way. What would happen if you pointed that out to him?
posted by chrillsicka at 12:56 PM on February 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

For HSA: 100 ul at 50 pmol/ul would be 5000 pmol or 5 nanomole, not 250 pmol -- but this still works out to 332 ug as you said.

For KLH: 100ug works out to about 250 pmol with my math:
(100ug)*(1g/10^6ug)*(1mol/39000g) = 2.56^-10mol

So yeah you used a lot more than 39 pmol KLH. But I've never done HPLC so I don't know if that would have caused your problem.

But in either case, this is science, shit happens, people make mistakes, and your boss needs to handle it better. On the other hand, I've worked for folks like this and telling them that they make you feel shitty has never worked for me. What has worked for me is finding another lab.

Science is full of egotistical asshats who will never own up to being egotistical asshats. But there are plenty of nice scientists, too. You just have to pick your lab carefully. Keep in close touch with the other lab, speak up and say intelligent things in lab meetings, start thinking of things you could do in their lab, and approach the lab head in another few months when you have some good ideas worked out. In the meantime, just do the best you can with your current boss. Things aren't likely to get better, I'm afraid.
posted by phoenix_rising at 1:06 PM on February 6, 2015 [15 favorites]

Oops just realized I should have said 2.56e-10 not 2.56^-10 in my answer above -- written out longer, it's actually 2.56*10^-10 ... hope that wasn't too confusing.
posted by phoenix_rising at 4:17 PM on February 6, 2015

I can't do that kind of maths, sorry! But those kinds of words should never come out of the mouth of a grownup in a professional setting.

I'd report him to my line manager or HR, or someone, but maybe best after you've found something else. I'm sorry this is happening to you, good luck if you do decide to look elsewhere.
posted by symphonicknot at 12:18 PM on February 7, 2015

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