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« We All Scream for a Time Machine | Main | There's a Sucker Bjorn Every Minute »

The Memory of Wheeze

I write a lot of nonsense around here. I wouldn't want you to think that I'm specifically torturing you by throwing all that jibberjabber in one place. There's plenty to go around. Plenty.

By way of proof, I'll share a bit of nonsense with you that, until now, actually wasn't posted anywhere in these pages.

Though after I share it, I suppose it will be posted in these pages, and so I'll have tortured you with another bit of jibberjabber, after all.

Sorry. At least take heart that you weren't the first to deal with this particular nightmare. And may not be the last.

Anyway, here's the thing. A few weeks ago, the company I'm with celebrated their fifth year anniversary. I haven't been with them for all five years, of course -- only for sixteen months or so. And being relatively new, I wasn't sure what to get them. Or us. Or however this works. I felt like I should bring in something pewter, or marbled silverware or some sort of commemorative tea cozy. These "social convention" events make me all nervous and clammy.

(My wife and I solved the problem by deciding for our fifth anniversary, we should exchange "alcohol" and "moist towelettes". Much better. And practical, too. To a certain point.)

Luckily, it turned out I was off the hook for this company anniversary thing, mostly. They didn't want gifts or cards or a nice romantic dinner. Instead, they asked each employee to relate a memory of their time at the company -- something in the last year that inspired, or awed, or otherwise made a personal impact.

The admin staff collected these stories into a little booklet that we all received at the company party, and I got to see how my fellow employees thought about the place. All the amazing work and the people they remembered. The triumphs. The challenges. The drive to achieve and persevere and do good science.

(Because we're a science company. If we were a bakery, that would be weird. You do "good science" in a bakery, and probably the donuts don't get made or something. But for us, it's a good thing.)

Yeah. So here's the lasting personal memory I shared (very slightly edited, to protect the innocent):


I joined the company on January 1, 2012 and - once the New Year's bubbly was fully out of my system - settled in nicely to work on projects. One of my first assignments was analyzing ChIP-seq data for an experiment of [one of the lead scientists and company founders; let's call him Carl], and I dug in as best I could.

"It's the kind of experience that can quickly make you wonder whether your last employer kept you around simply because you make a mean tuna casserole at the potlucks."

(Despite not knowing much yet about the experimental setup. Or ChIP-seq. Or epigenetics. It's the kind of experience that can quickly make you wonder whether your last employer kept you around simply because you make a mean tuna casserole at the potlucks.)

As the calendar had just turned over, I was also in the midst of that time-honored American tradition of joining a gym and working out for the first week-and-a-half of January, before giving up and swearing off exercise again for another eleven-plus months. During one of my jaunts at the gym downstairs, I found Carl furiously pedaling away on a stationary bicycle. I nodded hello, set up shop on a bike down the row, and commenced faux-cycling myself.

Five minutes later, Carl finished his workout and stopped by. I hadn't had a chance to make much of an impression - on anyone, really - yet, so I welcomed the chance to "talk shop" and see how much I'd learned. Hold a stimulating scientific conversation. Maybe show off a little, even.

Unfortunately, this was the moment my bike's exercise program switched from "warmup" to "Himalayan assault". The gears locked up, the pedals pushed back at every inch, and I was nearly coming out of my seat just to keep the meter running. Meanwhile, Carl - smiling and enthusiastic - asked a perfectly simple question: "So, how's that new dataset we got looking?"

I mentally reviewed what I'd learned -- the technical considerations, the scientific implications, how our initial findings dovetailed with the larger biological context evidenced in the current literature - and gave him as clear and concise an answer as I could:

"It's... *huff* *huff* ... the, uh, data is... *puff* *whew* *gasp* ... it's... *gah* *erk* ... pretty good."

Thankfully, Carl didn't press for more info. He just smiled and walked away - back to his office, most likely, to figure out how in the hell I'd gotten hired in the first place. Or to brush up on CPR, since it probably seemed likely that I'd someday be found unresponsive and exhausted from trying to open a bag of chips or something.

Eventually, I made good on analyzing that dataset - and talking coherently about it. Well, mostly coherently. Just don't ask me to give lab meeting while riding a stationary bike, apparently. It's a good thing I didn't list "multitasking" as a strength on my resume.


And that, friends, is why they pay me the big bucks. Or the medium-sized bucks. Mostly these days, they just tie a twenty to a stick and dangle it over the front of the exercise bike.

They know I'll never reach it. But if I pedal far enough before I pass out, maybe they can run the lights for a few minutes on the cheap. So I'm helping. See? I'm helping!





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