One morning, the phone in the lab rings

Revenge can be sweet. It doesn’t have to be for anything really bad, or serious. Sometimes it tastes just as good in answer to a bit of attitude, some haughtiness, someone getting too big for his/her britches. Or in this case, when a recently graduated student invited dozens of people “over” for a good-bye party (to be held this upcoming week). To my house.

What does one do when your former student is “out of control” and still working in the lab for another few weeks? This one isn’t in any “How to run a lab” manual that I encountered. The key is to get the person back to a basic level of humility–to remove the manic “I am super-person” that sometimes emerges with the title “Dr.” for some (former) students.

My solution? A little prank. First, I wrote a short and plausible little script. I should have been working on my grant and rewriting 3-4 papers for submission/resubmission–but there are priorities.

Then, a conversation with a trusted lab member (whose identity shall remain anonymous to protect him/her).Then, the  identification of an amateur but extremely capable actor willing to take part–and voila, the ingredients are there.

I arranged to be in the lab and talking to people when the former student was positioned in front of the computer in the lab. All systems go. Text messages transmitted, and seconds later the phone rings. Here is an approximation of the conversation that occurred:

First, “Are you answering the phone?”

“I’ve got it”

“Hello, may I speak with Dr. XXX? (the script had the actor read the former student’s first name after the Dr.)

“That’s me.”

“My name is Kenneth Fowler (couldn’t resist, as in FOUL), and I’m an administrator in the Dept. of Blah Blah at the University of West Coast (these were the real names of the department that the said former student is going for post-doctoral studies in 2 weeks time). I’m also serving as an arbitrary auditor for the department’s economic outlook program.”

“Uhh huh.”

“I’m afraid I have some rather unfortunate news for you that Dr. ZZZ has asked me to pass along to you. He’s tied up in departmental economic auditing meetings all week, but he wanted to make sure that I contact you as soon as possible.”

[In the meantime, those in the lab who were in the know were glancing at one another, trying hard not to crack up. I was half listening to one end of the conversation, and pretending to look at blots that a post-doc who was not in the loop was showing me. I did not want her to be upset that I wasn’t taking her results seriously, but was having trouble multi-tasking]

“Dr. ZZZhas asked me to inform you that rather than beginning in early Sept., he will not be able to accommodate a start date for you until Nov. 15th.”

Stunned silence. A few feelings of guilt moved into my gut, along with the adrenalin of the prank.

“But I already rented an apartment and am scheduled to come out in 10 days? How can this be? We already arranged the paperwork and everything?”

“I apologize on behalf of the department and Dr. ZZZ. You surely know how things are right now economically. The audit report clearly has limited Dr. ZZZ from hiring you before Nov. 15th. Perhaps you could ask your current mentor if he could keep you on until November.”

[In the background, I am saying to someone: ‘It’s fortunate that YYY is leaving next week, because otherwise I wouldn’t have a budget for this coming year… Sometimes the icing on the cake can be a bit cruel]

The conversation went on a few more minutes, with a weak argument from the student, and the actor doing a magnificent job apologizing, rebutting and telling the former student that the PI could not do anything about it and that he was busy. Finally, the call ended with the student staring blankly in front of the computer screen.

At the urging of one of my co-conspirators in the lab, it was time to end the prank. But I was having such a good time! Just a few more humbling minutes! To hear some groveling, about staying on for an extra few months. That would end any more “big for your britches” phenotype.

But no, alas, I am a soft-soul. I turned to the student-didn’t even try to “dig out the story,” and just said. “Got you–it’s okay, it’s all a prank!”

I haven’t had so much fun since I photo-shopped the title of one of my students’ manuscripts-in-preparation on top of a published article in a top journal and printed it out to show her we’d been scooped… But that’s another story for another time.

For those of you students soon to graduate: it ain’t over ’til it’s over…

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 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. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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11 Responses to One morning, the phone in the lab rings

  1. MGG says:

    Good one!

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Best prank I’ve played since April 1 a few years ago when I walked into the lab and announced that I was moving the lab to the University of Alaska in Juneau, and wanted to know who would come with me. That was in the midst of “Palindromia”…

  2. ricardipus says:

    You are teh 3v1L. Well done. 😉

  3. cromercrox says:

    Steve, it has to be said, even in the gentle halls of OT, but you are a complete and utter bastard. And I love you.

    On the other hand…

    Many years ago when the world was young I was renting rooms to friends to fill a big house (long story, move along now, nothing to see.) A good friend who was renting a room was also working as a chartered land surveyor and had access to all sorts of official-looking letterheads. He arranged to send me a letter from some high-falutin’ authority to say that my house was to be compulsorily purchased so it could be demolished as part of a redevelopment project. My reaction to the letter was, apparently, to take it much more seriously than my housemate intended, so he fessed up. I nearly killed him. I nearly evicted him, and then nearly killed him. (NB: my friend has since sadly died, but not by my hand I hasten to add.)

  4. Steve Caplan says:

    Steve, it has to be said, even in the gentle halls of OT, but you are a complete and utter bastard. And I love you.


    Uhhh, that’s not a marriage proposal, is it?

  5. @OmicsScience says:

    Loved it. I love pranks.
    Will you hire me now that you have an available position in your lab???

    • steve caplan says:

      Send in a CV, a self-addressed and stamped envelope, and 20 bottles of good Cabernet. Failure to comply precisely with the instructions above will result in the application being rejected.

      • @OmicsScience says:

        OK I got it. I will send 20 bottles of Cabernet and I will deliver myself the CV once I am hired.
        Merci beaucoup!

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