Last night I had one of the most upsetting conversations of my life. The conversation was sparked by an incident that happened to me at my old job. So, incident first. There was a day last April that I went in to work despite the fact that I wasn't feeling well. There were some things that I knew I needed to get done, so I thought I would go in, complete the tasks that had to be completed, and then go home to recover. The moment I got into work I told my supervisor I wasn't feeling well and asked if I could go home after I finished the must-do tasks. His response was, "We'll see." So I pushed through the tasks trying to ignore the waves of nausea and extreme lightheadedness. Once finished, I approached my supervisor again to ask to go home. He responded by asking me to list all of my symptoms. I was shocked and felt like my privacy was being violated, but, wanting so badly to go home, I went ahead and listed them. It was humiliating. I felt like a child being accused of trying to get out of taking an exam at school. After I finished deliriously rambling through my list of symptoms my supervisor asked me to complete another task. Once that was done I was finally allowed to go home.
Anyway, I told this story to some people at a party last night. One of these people, who is pursuing a career in bioengineering, was completely unphased by my experience. His response was that he has actually fired people for less. This comment made absolutely no sense to me so I asked him how it was legally or ethically possible for him to fire someone for being sick for one day. From here the conversation became extremely circular and convoluted, so I will just give you the gist of the discussion. This person was basically arguing that this sort of mistreatment is standard in the science realm, and if scientists are not cut-throat and generally uncollaborative they won’t be able to obtain grants and produce enough data to carry on their research. This person also seemed to the think that this behavior was totally acceptable, and being mistreated by ones supervisors is just an age-old pastime associated with conducting scientific research. He tried so hard to convince me that this is just the way science is, and told me if I didn’t like it I should get out of the field. I was completely disgusted. I know that there are labs out there with negative cultures, I worked in such a lab, but I also know that not all labs function like this. There are labs were people are not treated like easily disposable used tissues. There are labs were collaboration is highly encouraged. And there are labs that embrace this different culture and still get grants and publish papers. I know this information first hand, and yet this person tried to convince me that labs that function in this way aren’t truly successful. If they aren’t successful then how, pray tell, do these labs still exist?
What angered me most about this conversation, however, was the fact that this person was deeply entrenched in the science world, but had no desire to affect change from the inside. Instead of improving the field he felt it was fine to let science continue down the same ruthless, alienating, egotistical, and misogynistic road. I was so infuriated that I decided to leave the party. I promptly thanked the hosts, went to Safeway to buy a comforting bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolate, and then caught the bus back to my brother’s apartment. Needless to say, my faith in science was significantly rattled.