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Tough love – my disastrous relationship with my mentor


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Tough love – my disastrous relationship with my mentor

We all learnt at school how ice forms. I remember being particularly intrigued by the anomalous behavior of water when it forms ice. Generally, liquids expand on heating and contract on cooling. Water, however shows an exceptional behaviour below 4°C. If we cool water at room temperature, we find that it goes on contracting but as soon as the temperature drops below 4°C, it expands instead of contracting. Conversely, if water is heated from 0 to 4°C, instead of expanding it contracts.

Today, in a moment of epiphany, I realized, we are also like water — we change according to the environment around us. The changes need not be big you know. Sometimes, the smallest ones are also important. However, it is important to know when you have reached the four degrees of your life and what caused it, so that you can grow from within.

This is the story of my PhD mentor or supervisor who was a taskmaster, and to whom I owe a great deal of whatever I have learnt in research and science. But the story of our relationship is not a happy one, and there are many reasons for that.

I was twenty-five when I started working with her and although I had a diverse range of experience in science and research, I did not have the specific abilities required for the particular project I wanted to work on. But I am a fast learner and was sure of my ability to pick up what was necessary on the way, and thus chose to work with her. However, my journey with her turned out to be the most arduous in my life as I understood how it feels when nothing of you is ever enough for someone!

When we started working, her vision for the project was at a stage of infancy. As we progressed, a multitude of avenues opened up for the project thanks to our never-ending curiosities. For three years in a row, the project received national acclaim in our country, India, when it was presented by my supervisor to eminent panellists working in the area of reproduction. This was clearly indicative to me of the fact that my abilities of grasping abstract concepts, meticulously executing experiments, and exceptional organizational skills were key to the success of our project.

Around six months into the project when I had completed cloning and expressing the protein and was struggling to purify it, I started realizing that for a newcomer I had achieved a lot. But not once in those six months had my supervisor commended my efforts. Even when I finally purified the protein and a major target was accomplished, she did not say anything. Fortunately for me, both my supervisor and I had to report our findings, especially major targets, to another senior scientist at our lab. She was also the departmental head, and the day my protein got purified and we showed her our results, she encouraged me to take up the next part of the work. It felt so good to finally have someone acknowledge the hard work that I had put in! She also urged my supervisor to appreciate me for the effort I was putting in. But even to that, my supervisor only responded with a sly smile which upset me.

I remember being very dissatisfied at work the next day. When I met my supervisor, she brought up the previous day’s topic of appreciation. She said that she was not the kind of person who appreciates someone directly. For a moment I was taken aback. I felt a nerve-wracking sense of disappointment and annoyance. I do not remember what I told myself at that point, but after that day I never expected any verbal expression of approval from her. I went about my motions in the lab like a robot who understood what was to be done and completed the work in the best way possible. Nevertheless, it was rewarding for me because there were moments when I would get reproducible results even after changing a batch of reagents or repeating an experiment after a lapse of six, eight, or at times, ten months!

I remember a time in the initial days when I had been discussing my results with her and she had said to me, “Don’t you think you would be happier working for a bank or probably in the field of writing? It is a very relaxed kind of job and very good for women.” I chose to ignore this as a passing comment at that time, but later realized that there were insecurities brewing within her right from the day I started working. If you look around, there are millions of scientists out there and they are way better than me and her combined even. Then why should she be insecure about me, her own protégé?

My “appreciation-less” relationship with my supervisor continued for some years. The objectives of our project were achieved, our data was solid, and I eventually ended up enrolling for a doctorate on the project. But through it all, one thing remained constant — my supervisor’s attitude. As such the difficulties and variables in the project were tough to deal with; my supervisor’s behavior added unnecessary ambiguity and uncertainty to the situation, leaving me exhausted day after day.

There were many times when I had to experience the darker side of her personality. I would ignore it so as to not let my work get affected. But now I know that even if you have to ignore something out of necessity, it is very important to acknowledge your dislike of it to your own self. If possible, stop working with such people, especially for a long period, since they will drain you in ways you won’t see coming.

I went through an additionally challenging period for two years because of scarcity of funding. I had no fellowship and my supervisor made no conscious effort to help me in that regard. Neither were my grant applications forwarded, nor was I allowed to work on other projects to sustain myself. No matter what solution I tried to implement to better my situation, it was always negated. When I requested my supervisor that we should consider publishing a paper so that I could use the publication to get funding, she refused! She wanted a substantial amount of work to be completed before we submitted our paper to a journal as she wanted to approach a ‘good’ journal. Two years later, when my PhD supervisor faced funding issues, she conveniently put aside her ideology of wanting to send the work to a ‘good’ journal and told me that we should be considering submitting a short communication. By then I was in my fourth year and had started understanding the dualities of her nature.

In my fifth year of research, I was thirty-two years of age, penniless, desiring to settle down in life, and without even one publication to my name after years of hard work. Around that time, my supervisor started urging me to become a technical staff under her at the research institute where I worked. I did not want to give up on my goal of PhD and so, politely turned her down. After that, she told me to take up an experiment and when I finished processing samples after working for an entire month and was finally ready to perform the experiment, I was asked to throw away the samples and take up another experiment because her priorities had changed. I faced this game of shifting priorities for a year and a half. Needless to say, this torture severely affected my health and well-being. Not knowing how the week, or even the next day would look like was extremely exhausting!

When I started realizing that things were at their worst, I decided to wrap up my work by writing my manuscript and giving it a logical conclusion. But there was an experiment left to perform. It required a permission letter from my supervisor so that I could avail the facilities at another research institute to perform that experiment. I had been requesting my supervisor for the letter for four years. However, she denied my request by insisting that the question should be tackled according to her method. I gave her opinion due consideration and performed an elaborate set of experiments which eventually proved that her approach was not the right direction for our work and that we should use the approach that I was suggesting. Despite this she did not give me the permission letter to perform that experiment and during my internal work progress meeting projected that I was incompetent as the first manuscript was not yet ready.

I felt utterly humiliated as I was being held responsible for the lack of progress despite the fact that I had made every effort to keep things in perspective. Even then I did not give up. I decided to perform an alternative set of experiments that would not require my supervisor’s permission in any way and would enable me to write the first manuscript. And I achieved substantial success! I started writing my manuscript and when I felt it was in a good shape, I mentioned it to her. She told me that she would not send my paper to a journal unless I performed one more experiment for her. Around that time, the funding situation had reached a critical point and the reagents for the experiment which my supervisor wanted were not being delivered. I got really tired of the long wait and kept requesting her to abandon the thought of that experiment and consider my alternative approach. She still refused to budge, and I was stuck. I was forced to leave the project at the last moment because nothing was working out.

What triggered my decision to quit was my supervisor’s claim that our manuscript was not getting completed because of me, which wasn’t the case at all. I had done everything possible to complete everything on time. Despite this, my credibility was questioned by my supervisor in front of a panel of scientists who took her word for it and decided that I was incapable of being a researcher. After that I could not continue working with her anymore. I handed over all the raw data and left the institute.

I realised that I should have changed my supervisor and completed my degree by approaching another supervisor with the consent from our institute director when I left. I tried doing that recently, however, this required that my supervisor provide me a “No Objection Certificate” (NOC) which she denied. And that closed all doors for me forever.

Three years have passed since, but I still experience flashes of the humiliation that I faced. I look for ways and means to get over the fact that all the hard work I put in for so many years bore no fruit! Recently, I tried to draft my paper to present it in a new way and when I was about to send it across to the institute director for review, marking my former supervisor on the same, I received an email from a publisher informing me that I was marked as the third author for a manuscript that my former supervisor had drafted based on my work. I was utterly disappointed. This manuscript has been submitted to three different journals until now and has recently been taken up seriously by one of them.

One of the peer reviewers raised a query which my supervisor requested me to address over email. I really wanted to get over the negativity and no longer wanted to have any ties with the institute and my former supervisor. So I ignored her request for answering the query sent by the journal. This infuriated my supervisor and she demanded I apologize for the delay in the publication, threatening to drop my name from the authorship. I decided to take this as a life - lesson and replied that she could drop my name from the author list in the paper but I would never apologize for a mistake that I did not commit. We kept communicating, and she has now agreed to retain my name as one of the authors of the paper. Thus far, I have provided my inputs and suggestions for the draft that she has sent. And that is where story of my relationship with my former supervisor stands as of the evening of 28th November 2019. I do not know what’s in store for me next.

I wonder if I am alone or if there are many like me — Students caught up with PhD supervisors who display the ‘my way or highway’ attitude that eventually destroys their protégé’s careers. I have learnt to keep minimum or no contact with my former supervisor. I will always respect her for the things I learned and the fascinating ideas I got to explore. She has also contributed significantly to the way I have evolved as a researcher, but as humans, there is an ocean of bitterness between us. After all the struggle that I faced, I did not get my degree only because of the non-cooperation of my supervisor. All I know is that after enduring so much with her, I eventually reached my four degrees.

Right now, I am only focused on transforming all this dejection, failure, and bitterness into something productive so that it does not become the single defining failure of my life.

Today I feel the need to become like ice crystals, and be my own best version in whatever I choose to do next!

There is one last thing that I want to share with my fellow researchers and students. It is true that life, like water, flows. But you have to make sure that life does not flow away. We can always give our desired shape and flavour to our life! But to do that, it is important to be present and mindful of everything around and within you. After all, it's your ice of life, your crystal-clear creation!

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Published on: Jan 24, 2020

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