Urinal-based Science Supervision

14 Jan 2013 // science

In a recent email conversation with Baker lab postdoc Jeremy Mills, I stumbled onto an important issue regarding supervision in science and ceramic bowls.

It started with me recounting an incident in the early naugties. I was then in a lab that ran out of money and unfortunately, I was the first to be asked to leave. I spent the next few months chasing around like a headless chicken for interviews on the west and east coast of the United States. On an off-chance, I even shot off an email to a professor down the corridor.

I managed to get some interviews, but nothing much came out of it. Then, one day, in my building on my floor, as I was in the toilet at the urinal, urinating, the professor down the hall comes in.

He takes up the bowl next to mine, and proceeds to urinate.

"Oh Bosco. I've been meaning to talk to you. I didn't forget your email."

"Uh .. uh, a-ha". I am still pissing.

"I'm very interested in it. Let's organize something".

"Uh .. could I ..er shoot you um an email about it... later?"

"Sure," he says, zips up his pants and leaves. "I'll hear from you later!"

I eventually got that postdoc position but by recounting this formative experience, I had hoped to elicit a lol response from my colleague Jeremy. Instead, I got a rather nonplussed reaction. Jeremy informed me that in his experience, this pathology among professors was surprisingly ubiquitous.

"When I was at Scripps, there were notorious professors who had no compunction talking to their students about science while they were at the urinals." Well color me yellow – it turns out my experience was not even unique.

Jeremy went on, "One chemistry professor there actually went so far as to make some sort of contact with one of his students. My mind is foggy on the details, but it was either a pat on the back, or a full on shoulder grab. Fortunately, my graduate advisor spent most of his time across the street from our actual building. I never had the "pleasure" of an awkward encounter with him in the restroom, but my heart goes out to those that have!"

Which then begs the question, how common is this really? I want to know. I'd also like to know if this is a purely man-on-man activity, or if there is a lady-scientist equivalent. Should supervisors supervise in the john? Is it effective? More importantly, did someone ever cross swords with their boss?

If you can contribute to this important topic, please please please leave a comment.