The empty bottles in my office

Images: The bottles in question (© S Heard CC BY 4.0); and the video screen that sparked the question (© Alex Smith).

 Warning: might be considered navel-gazing.

If you’ve ever seen my office, you’ll know that it’s a disaster zone.  Piles of books, unruly sheaves of paper, empty binders and full ones, cases and boxes of pinned insects, and sometimes my lunch – all strewn wildly across every horizontal surface. I’ve long since stopped pretending this is a temporary condition (except, of course, for the lunch).  I do still find myself apologizing for it – most recently two weeks ago when I skyped into a class at the University of Guelph to talk with the students about scientific writing.  Turns out they didn’t even notice the heaping mounds of detritus (or at least, they were polite enough to pretend they didn’t); but they were curious about the long row of empty champagne bottles above my bookshelves, just at the top edge of the video frame.  So I explained.

It’s a lab tradition (not unique to me, and inherited from my own PhD lab).  Each time a grad student schedules a defense, I schedule a trip to the wine store.  I’m after a bottle of champagne*; and after the defence, we break out the bottle.  Then I give the student a marker and ask them to write their thesis title and the date on the label, and sign it.  The signed bottle joins the row just as soon as I can find my tiny (and thus easily misplaced) stepladder.  To make this all work, I have one absolute requirement for the champagne: the label has to have lots of blank space (thesis titles can be long). Unfortunately for those who will share the champagne, but fortunately for my pocketbook, I’ve discovered that there is a strong negative correlation between label blank space and champagne quality.  Oh well!

In explaining my champagne-bottle tradition, I described the row of bottles as “my whole career worth of students”.  But as soon as I’d said that, it sounded strange to me.  It sounded like I was saying these bottles, and the theses and students they represent, were MY accomplishment.  Surely each bottle actually marks a student’s accomplishment, not mine?  Why are these bottles on my shelf, and not on all my students’ shelves?**

Well, there’s no doubt that each bottle – each thesis – marks a great accomplishment on the part of a student.  But if I’m doing it right, each should be in some small part my accomplishment too.  That is, a successful thesis should be a joint project, involving advice, support, and mentoring.  I hope that when a student completes a thesis under my supervision, it’s something more than they could have managed alone.  After all, if it isn’t, why did they bother coming to my lab?  I’ve had terrific students over the years, and they deserve to be proud of their theses – but I get to be proud of them too.  In fact, when I eventually hang up my gloves***, the students represented by my row of bottles will be one of the things I take the most satisfaction from.  Not their number (although that does fascinate my granting agency, NSERC); and not the content of their particular theses (although some of them were pretty cool!).  Rather, it pleases me enormously to have helped train young scientists who are now high school teachers, college teachers, data analysts for NGOS, government research scientists, technicians in private industry, and much more.  If I could just have one run for elective office, that would be the icing on the cake.  Students: who’s up for that one?

© Stephen Heard  October 29, 2019

This older post about academic inclusive fitness generalizes today’s point, in a way.

*^Not always, of course.  A sharp eye would pick out a bottle or two of sparkling grape juice, from a student who couldn’t or didn’t drink alcohol.

**^Actually, at least some of my students have a matching bottle on their shelf.  I’ve taken more recently to buying two bottles: one for my bookshelf, and the other for theirs.

***^Pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve ever used a boxing metaphor on Scientist Sees Squirrel.  [I did, however, once borrow a lyric from The Boxer, and I guess you could count that a boxing metaphor once removed.]  I’ll admit to knowing almost nothing about boxing, but I’m comfortable saying this: if your science bears any similarity to boxing beyond this retirement metaphor, you’re doing it very, very wrong.


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