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Body language

From the LabLit short story series

Nik Papageorgiou 6 March 2015

"Paper" is like absinthe for academics. Even if "toilet" precedes it, heads will turn

Prof leans back on his chair, trying that body language stuff he's been reading that he thinks the lab doesn't know about. We know. The postdoc saw his book arrive from Amazon and I guess she was in a good mood so she told the rest of us while we were having one of those lab-bonding moments when we're doing our compulsory weekly-but-really-annual cleanup. You know, when I'm on my knees trying to reconnect the broken mop, Paul takes ten minutes to wash a beaker, and Sophia clambers up the side-bench on non-regulation bare feet to wipe the windows. Meanwhile, we're all thinking "this is not what I signed up for".

Anyway, where was I? Right. Prof and his body language. So Prof isn't the most interpersonally skillful academic to ever walk these hallowed halls, but he's trying to get in good with the new dean so he's taking this high-level management course. And part of the curriculum dictates that Prof has to master non-verbal communication, which he's told can really tip the scales in negotiations, especially when said negotiations are neck-to-neck. Now, being a lowly PhD student I haven't been long enough in academia to have many negotiations, and the ones I have had cannot, in good conscience, be described as "neck-to-neck". But from what I hear, academia is a veritable bazaar.

So Prof bought the body-language book from Amazon, the postdoc saw it, was in good enough mood to pull a wikileak on him, and a couple of quid later on eBay we're all internalising the PDF. Fascinating stuff, really – did you know that city-dwellers have a smaller personal space than country folk? Still, squish them on the Tube during rush-hour and they look ready to eat your unborn. I wonder if that goes for labs too. I certainly feel better when no-one's around, got the whole bench to myself, no need to argue over the good pipettes or that last box of yellow tips – as if a trip to the autoclave is too much wear on your princess tootsies, Sophia! Don't seem to mind stepping all over the filter paper when you pretend to clean the windows.

Prof is still leaning back on his chair and I can almost hear him counting under his breath – seven seconds, says the book, and then put your hands behind your head.

He looks like an ostrich doing tai chi. Arms folded behind him, he proceeds to raise his elbows slightly. The idea is to subtly occupy more space so as to "achieve a dominant position that will translate into the negotiation". I don't know why he feels like he needs to, he's Prof and I hardly have any bartering chips, but I keep my mouth shut. In academia, the postdoc said, silence is also negotiating.

"Soooo", Prof coos softly, "I must say I'm really impressed with that last set of data. The bands are sharp, data distribution is tight, and those photos you got last month are epic." He tries youth-lingo occasionally, but he's usually a few months late.

"Thanks, Prof," I say, and, as coached by my seniors, I say no more.

"Soooo", he says again, "I think we have a paper on our hands." I smile a bit – "paper" is like absinthe for academics. Even if "toilet" precedes it, heads will turn.

"That's great, Prof. I can put together a draft, by next week. I have enough written, I'd love to give it a go."

"Sure, sure."

"My first paper!"

"Well, about that." He stretches his arms now, trying to engulf the air between us. "You know, papers are the currency of academia – we buy and sell on them, you know? And currency is not to be hoarded. It works best when shared and spread around to maximize its potential.”

Why the lesson in monetary policy? Because labs are state-heavy communism; one researcher’s data is the people’s data.

“What are you telling me, Prof?”

“Well, Sophia is coming up to the end of her PhD, and she could really use a winner if she’s going to apply for that postdoc in the States.”


“And, well, she would really benefit from being First Author on the paper.”

My face burns. “Sophia didn’t work on this paper!”

Prof’s arms flail like a chicken trying to fly. “Now, now, she did, uh, run the cell culture part, right? The MC/9 cells?”

“We ALL use those cells!”

“Didn’t she run the QT-PCR?”

“She doesn’t even know where the kit is!"

“Well, I understand that she wasn’t directly involved in the study, but her project is similar to –”

I’ve half-stood from my chair. “My project is about cell modelling. Sophia's is about a G-protein no-one believes exists. How are those even remotely similar?”

Prof’s arm-space shrinks a little. “Look, all I’m saying is that it’s in the lab’s interest – "

“The lab’s interest?” I’m up now, chair rolled behind me and my knuckles squeeze white on the table between us. “You mean your interest – and your little lab pet!"

Prof’s arm-wings collapse. He sort of deflates a little. “Pet? What – what do you mean?"

I’ve had my doubts, actually. But this was all I needed for confirmation. “Body language,” I hiss like an asp. “It’s all about that, isn’t it? Doesn’t take much, a little leaning in when you’re going over her protocols in the lab; a fleeting arm-brush; that ambiguity of personal spaces when you’re chatting in the corridor.” His mouth hangs loose, forming no communicative substance. “Body language, Prof. It’s all there."

We stare at each other – well, I glare more – for a good seven seconds, and then Prof leans forward and I sit slowly back down and he drums his fingers on the table and I adjust some hair strands that came loose and we both catch our breaths and then Prof nods and says: “Very good, Sophia, very, very good. I like the romantic twist. Right for the jugular."

I grin and let out a little laugh. “Don’t you think it was a bit much?"

He wiggles his fingers like he's conjuring thoughts. “You might have stood up a little too soon – always leave a little wiggle room in negotiations and save the moral outrage for the absolute climax."

“I don’t know,” I say. “Isn’t the whole ‘hysterical woman’ a little backwards, even for academia?"

He laughs. “Not if you’ve seen as many hysterical men in academia as I have. Trust me, you keep practising like this and you’ll cut right through the grease of the research world."

“But this is weird. Do I really have to refer to myself as a different person?"

“Not just refer – you have to think of yourself as a different person. Externalisation is key. The academic circus is too rough, too noisy and too… funny to invest yourself and your emotions into it. You need to learn to distance yourself from its abuse."

Personally, I find Prof’s methods extreme. But they have proved phenomenally successful with every single researcher that’s gone through his lab, and what kind of scientist would I be to ignore evidence? I mean, his last technician is now on CalTech's tenure-track.

“Okay,” I concede. “But it feels like I'm lying to myself."

Prof shrugs. “You want to make it in research, you’ll have to do some of that. Might as well be prepared. Now – what’s next?"

I look at our list of scenarios. “‘Presentations – expressing confidence and being noticed’. Sounds anticlimactic."

“Just like your faculty talk last week.” I blush at the memory of the golf-clap I received, so I stand up and walk to Prof’s whiteboard with confident strides, shoulders back, jaw protruding. Feels like a beauty pageant, but maybe that’s what this business has become.

On his chair, Prof leans far back to assume the I-don’t-want-to-be-here pose. He nods.

I take a deep breath, and visualise the future. What we put into it, it’s got to be worth it.

“Let’s do this."