Lab Rats

Taming your inner geek

'That Guy' on the conference circuit

Ian Brooks 7 October 2006

Badgering: can inspire an unnecessary trip to the toilets

At any moment gratuitous lies about your research or your most recent swathe of publications in Science or Nature could erupt

As a child, holidays usually consisted of a week away self-catering at a cottage somewhere in the UK. Perhaps in Devon, or up in Yorkshire. It rained almost incessantly. Some of my school friends would go with their families to the Mediterranean, or coastal Europe, but most of us stayed within the confines of Great Britain. Nowadays I look back with fond memories on those days; they instilled in me a love of the outdoors, of hiking through gorse and sedge through quickly changing weather. Activities I miss a great deal now.

Recent research shows that fewer and fewer people are taking all of their vacation time, and if vacation time is used, the laptop and mobile phone are constant traveling companions. However, for some of us, even that short-haul break somewhere, mobile phone in hand, seems like a luxury. You see, to us lab scientists, traveling usually means one thing: conferences.

I recently got back from my big conference of the year, and in the run up to it, I spent a lot of time getting my “conference head” on – in my experiments, in my reading and in my conversations with the other scientists in the department. I was slated to present data at this conference, and because my field is advancing rapidly, yet is still fairly new to me, I really had to get my game together.

One thing I tried to avoid in this process, though, was becoming ‘That Guy’. I’m sure you know what I mean. He’s the guy who can’t leave his work at work. He carries it around with him, wearing it like a second skin. Most of us do it unconsciously from time to time, but a quick glare from a drinking buddy or rolled eyeball from a loved one is usually enough to bring us back to reality.

I think scientists have it worse though, because by our very nature we can’t just switch off the moment we leave the office/lab. Science is a 24-hour endeavor; seriously, I dream about work most nights. However, I still try to be normal (whatever that is) when I’m out with my non-scientist mates, and I frequently find myself apologizing for the one of us who invariably can’t turn off his Ph.D. the minute he crosses the pub threshold. He bores you with incomprehensible details of his research, lists of facts and complaints about his colleagues, his project, his boss, his institute. Just when you think things can’t get much worse he’ll come out with aphorisms like “Smoking is bad for you, you know.” As an unrepentant smoker this is one of the things that annoys me most. Let me kill myself in peace and quiet, please! And if you insist on blathering on about second-hand smoke, trust me, you won’t be around long enough to worry about it much longer.

When a conference is imminent, I try to be more scientific in my day-to-day life and thus I run the risk of becoming That Guy after work – though I work hard at avoiding it. Even at a conference, you need to strike this balance: you have to play the role you’re cast in for most of the day, but in the evenings you get relax and unwind a little. It’s often quoted that the most productive collaborations don’t occur at the poster presentations or after the talks, but at the bar over a couple of whiskeys later in the evening.

If you’ve not been to a scientific conference before, allow me to set the scene:

You’re with your lab group in the midst of a vast convention center full of strangers. Your lab head has spotted some Nobel Laureate or another and rushed off to introduce himself. Standing there, it seems as if everyone knows everyone else but you guys. At least the postdocs in your group have the security of looking down on the grad students, who have the security of looking down on any undergrad who’s weaseled their way into a free trip. And the undergrad is just looking out for the free bar and snacks. Cautiously, you approach a likely looking group of fellow lone scientists, near the buffet table. At any moment gratuitous lies about your research or your most recent swathe of publications in Science or Nature could erupt. Still cautious, feelers are put out…

“Hi, I’m Ian. I’m a postdoc. How are you?”

“I’m OK.” Pause. “I’m Dave, I’m a postdoc too.” Immediate feelings of relief wash over you! Not junior faculty! Thank God!

“So, how’s your research going?” Terrible geek question, but best to get it over and done with as soon as possible. This is the final hurdle; the make-or-break part of the encounter. The answer to this question determines whether you carry on to make a life-long conference buddy, or run for your life.

“Oh. It’s OK. I guess. I’m having some trouble with my PCR. And my Western Blots haven’t really worked for a while now…”

Safe! With mutual sighs of relief you find out that neither of you is annoyingly hyper-successful but, more importantly, when the conversation turns to non-scientific themes, it’s clear neither of you are That Guy either. Furthermore, your poster presentations are close to each other, allowing the possibility of brief respites during the following afternoon. Nothing can spoil this wonderful moment.

Except of course, one thing…the arrival of That Guy. You spot him across the conference room. Quickly you turn away, but you know you weren’t fast enough. He has made eye contact and is moving in for the kill. Now that he’s found someone, he will be with you now, every step of the way, like a deer tick buried in skin, for the rest of the proceedings.

That Guy down the pub after work is really just an irritating nuisance who can be tuned out or ignored, or diluted via increasing the size of your social group. That Guy at a conference is far more dangerous. A geek to begin with, he has been honing his geek-skills over the last couple of months. He truly is the classic bespectacled geek. Most of us are trying to be reasonably cool at these conferences; after all, everyone has heard tales of conference hook-ups. And, of course, there’s networking as well. But That Guy has no clue. He's the super-geek scientist. No sense of fashion, no real personality, and girls are revolted by him. When you get trapped with him, others cast pitying glances in your direction, but avoid direct eye contact, as if just being around him incriminates you somehow. You want to go the bar after the day’s session has finished, and for some reason, even though he doesn't drink, he tags along and ruins your chances for every conversation (with or without the opposite sex). He is opinionated on all scientific matters, seems to posses an encyclopedic knowledge of the literature, and he is irritatingly right about a lot of things.

We fear him because he lurks inside us all – and to succeed we might just have to become him.