Lonely One

It’s been quite a week for me; an assortment of 6 different grant proposals having been submitted from my lab–most of them co-investigator proposals requiring a good deal of interdisciplinary coordination. In fact, the last few days I felt very much the way a chess grandmaster must feel when playing those “simul-chess” games against 20 opponents at the same time.

And this of course reminds me that I cannot fail to mention the incredible World Championship Chess between contender Boris Gelfand (Israel) and reigning champion Vishwanatha Anand (India) who managed to maintain his title after 12 tough regular games that ended with 10 draws, and a victory for each. So during this time I was further preoccupied with getting up at 5 am CST to watch the 12 noon rapid chess tiebreaker games on Wed. morning, in which Anand prevailed.

But I have fallen into a familiar chess trap–in that this blog was not intended to discuss chess–I’ll leave that to my more chess-advanced colleague in Manchester–and go back to what I was trying to say.

Which was–is: that in thinking about careers in life sciences, I think one of the  differences between students/postdocs and principal investigators that is rarely mentioned is the “loneliness factor.”

What is he on about now, you ask. Has he actually gone bonkers? Is it a breakdown of some sort?

No. Truthfully, for those students or postdocs out there aspiring for an academic career, this is something to prepare for. Really. It’s lonely at the “top.”

Think of it: Scientifically, at most academic institutes, as a PI you will likely be the resident expert in your general field. In other words, scientifically speaking, it’s unlikely that you will have someone to talk to about your studies on a routine basis. Not like a postdoc or student who can discuss his or her work with another student or postdoc in the same lab in a collegial manner. And I’ve witnessed some PIs who have had a terrible time internalizing this idea.

Then all the administrative and grant-writing work; all done “behind the scenes” in a sterile office. As a PI you can hardly go and whine about the status of funding to your students and postdocs (well, perhaps occasionally!)–it’s my job to encourage and motivate, not scare the living daylights out of them! lt’s lonely out there!

So it’s no wonder PIs get the “blues” now and then. And I just happened to discover a beautiful old song by 17 year-old Janis Ian, a favorite singer/songwriter of mine, from the 1960s entitled “Lonely One.” That did it for me. I guess I’ll just curl up and drool into a bucket. Until the next deadline.


About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising. http://www.stevecaplan.net
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17 Responses to Lonely One

  1. cromercrox says:

    If you go for palaeontology, it can be lonely at the bottom, too. When I was a graduate student I was in a research group of one (1). I counted it very carefully.

  2. Steve Caplan says:

    Did you have one of those fancy digital counters? I will definitely relay the info to “Lonely One Minora,” who confused a local university “recruiter” in 8th grade when asked “And what would you like to study (4.5 years from now) in university?” and was met with “vertebrate paleontology.” She swears that there was a dull haze in the recruiter’s eyes and that the latter hadn’t the foggiest what that was. “Ohhh, how interesting…”

  3. cromercrox says:

    I had some vernier calipers, for straight lines, and a haberdasher’s tape measure, for going round corners.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Well I guess your count must have been fairly accurate with standard error below one person. At least you probably didn’t have too many arguments about what music to listen to and how loud the volume should be.

      • cromercrox says:

        I did share an office with two other graduate students, both of whom are now distinguished professors in their respective fields. Luckily we all enjoyed the same musical tastes. The only respite from the Motörhead joyfully blasting out on the office cassette player was ameliorated occasionally when one of my two colleagues got out his lute and entertained us with gentle renaissance dance music. Happy days.

        • Steve Caplan says:

          Well then. Perhaps lonely in the field you worked in, but not in common goals and a shared experience. Sorry, but not being a “Rock Guy,” Motorhead sounds like part of an engine to me. Perhaps the music does too?

  4. If you go back far enough (e.g. to the ’50s, and certainly to before WW2), quite a lot of science was solitary stuff. And even when I started in the early-mid 80s, single-author papers were pretty common in the physiology journals (they are now a bit rare). But vertebrate palaeontology definitely sounds like it is stiil ‘old school’.

    It may be that the less ‘big money’ an area is, the more solitary. For instance, when I was reading comparative physiology journals a few years ago I had the impression single-author stuff was more common there than in mammalian/medical physiology. Of course, there is a lot less funding in comparative physiology.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      I expect that there are still a good number of scientific areas where it is “lonely” at earlier career stages too. It’s probably harder to get used to bring “alone” as a PI when you’ve come from a lab where you are one of a dozen postdoc, all similar ages and most with similar aspirations!

      • cromercrox says:

        Actually, I can’t remember when I last accepted a research paper by a single author, even in palaeontology.

        • I guess it’s possible that the ‘bleeding edge’ stuff that reaches Nature editors may, by its, errrm, nature, be less likely to feature single author stuff than what the specialist journals get…. single author sort of makes me think ‘one person beavering away in museum collection for years’, or similar. But as per Henry’s comment, single author papers are now rare all over.

          I did do a quick counting exercise a few years ago on N(Authors) in the papers published in J Physiol over the last two decades. Might have a delve and see if I can find the figures.

          • The correct number of authors for a nice, large-scale genomics paper is somewhere between 75 and “see the full list in the supplementary online materials”, I believe.

            If you want your genome sequenced, we can do it from the drool in that bucket, you know. Happy to oblige. 🙂

        • Steve Caplan says:

          How about a dog as a co-author? This is from the Wikipedia site talking about renowned immunologist Polly Matzinger at NIH:


          In one of her first publications, she appeared to have a dog as a coauthor for a paper for the Journal of Experimental Medicine[5]. As Ted Anton described the decision in his book Bold Science, “Refusing to write in the usual scientific passive voice (‘steps were taken’) and too insecure to write in the first person (‘I took the steps’), she instead invented [a] coauthor”: her Afghan Hound, Galadriel Mirkwood.[1] Once discovered, papers on which she was a major author were then barred from the journal until the editor died and was replaced by another.

          By the way, here’s a scientist with an unusual career path who made it big: (Wikipedia again, but I heard these stories second hand years before Wiki existed):

          Polly Matzinger took to science from an unusual background career path which included stints as a Playboy Bunny at a Playboy Club in Denver, a bar waitress, a jazz musician, a carpenter and dog trainer. In 1974 Polly Matzinger had dropped in and out of college for years and worked at various jobs before ending up waitressing at a bar frequented by faculty from the University of California, at Davis and here she met Professor Robert Schwab, the head of the University’s wildlife program who noticed her talent and persuaded her to take to science.

  5. Steve Caplan says:


    I forgot that you folks drool over drool. I’m afraid to even think about other common sources for your genomic work…

  6. Steve Caplan says:


    Local connection, eh?

    I looked up the link you sent with the hamster co-author, and this is an issue for Dr. Stephen Curry: the PDF form of the paper from 2001 costs $41.95!!!

    All that to get a paper co-authored by a family hamster?!!!

    Detection of earth rotation with a diamagnetically levitating gyroscope

    A.K. GeimCorresponding author contact information, E-mail the corresponding author,
    H.A.M.S. ter Tisha

    High Field Magnet Laboratory, University of Nijmegen, Toernooiveld 1, 6525 ED Nijmegen, The Netherlands

    Available online 9 March 2001.

    http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0921-4526(00)00753-5, How to Cite or Link Using DOI
    Cited by in Scopus (10)

    Permissions & Reprints

    View full text
    Purchase $41.95

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