My best Ph.D. prank

Looking back at 2011, my first year as a blogger and my new affiliation with OT, I find that I have written 96 blogs. That’s probably 96 more than most of you would care to read, so I may try to curb my impulses a little in 2012 and spare you some pain!

One of the things that struck me about my initiation into the world of blogging, is that like in fiction, it’s necessary to find one’s “voice.” Mine seems to have been all over the place–megaphone-like.

So what IS my voice? Am I first and foremost the serious guy who blogs about life as a PI, or science education for kids? Or am I the anti-religious coercion guy who can’t leave topics of gender inequality alone? Or am I the guy who pulls pranks his students and delights in taking revenge for their having parties at my house when they graduate? The runner-up to Ricardipus in Cath’s Bragging Rights Central?

I’ve come to the conclusion over this past year that I don’t really need to have a stated up-front theme. Unlike everything else in my life, stacked methodically into compartments with ruthless efficiency, on OT I think I would prefer to be less regimented and just let loose with whatever strikes my fancy. I don’t have the time or energy (or perhaps ability) to put together sparkling, highly informative and erudite blogs like a number of my highly respected OT blogging comrades. So you’ll just have to bear with my rambling from topic to topic.

So to start out 2012, I’m going to go back about 17 years to: my very best Ph.D. prank. By that time, I was already a veteran Ph.D. student in Jerusalem, and our lab had just taken on a young (and impressionable) new graduate student. Being the most senior student (and the first to eventually graduate with a Ph.D. from the lab), it often was incumbent upon me to train newcomers. In a number of cases, I was dissatisfied with the work ethics of these new recruits, but in the case of –let’s call him Johnny–there seemed to be genuine interest and dedication. Along with a little naivety! He was a nice kid, but suffice to say that after a while, he began to grate on my nerves. Well, perhaps not enough to justify this

One day I came into the lab in the morning to find Johnny being photographed–by some newspaper reporter. Holding a pipette at a jaunty angle and examining a column with his white lab coat on. I snickered and was about to say something, when I had a better idea. I allowed the shoot to continue and came back a few minutes after it was over.

“Wow, you must have a lot of special connections,” I said.

“Oh, it wasn’t that. They just wanted to photograph a scene from a lab.”

“No,” I shook my head. “I mean connections to get permission from the Chancellor’s office to have your photo taken in the lab or speak to the media.”

“What do you mean?” There was a bit of a dent in his smile now.

“You know how rigid they are about controlling publicity. I mean it’s great that they gave you permission, but really unusual. They hate this type of thing.”

“But I didn’t get any permission. The reported just walked in and took my picture.”

“You DIDN’T get permission?! Ha! You’re putting me on! Don’t joke with me.”

Now he was beginning to get worried, lines appearing in his forehead. “There was a guy in the other building who interviewed in the paper without permission,” I added. “He’s now a biology high school teacher. A shame, he was really talented–published a couple high profile papers, too. They caught him doing an interview, and—–”

“No way. You’re pulling my leg.”

He definitely looked worried now. “Okay, I’m pulling your leg,” I said.  “But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

I let it fester for a few days, and then pulled the big one. I had a fellow graduate student from another lab call our lab and present herself as an administrator in the Chancellor’s office. Poor Johnny took the phone, as she explained to him that he had violated university policy, and that they would have to schedule a hearing for him. He would be allowed legal representation at this or any subsequent stage.

I waltzed into the lab later, and he pounced on me. “They’re scheduling a hearing for me.”

Play it dumb, I thought. “A hearing? What are you going to listen to? Rock music?”

“Seriously, at the Chancellor’s office! Because of the reporter and photograph!”

“You can’t be serious! I wonder how they found out so quickly. Did the article come out already? I hope you didn’t say anything bad about the university!”

“What am I going to do?” He was close to tears now, so some optimism was called for.

“Well I know that a strong recommendation letter from our supervisor/mentor would definitely help. Would you like me to talk to her?”

“Oh thank you–I can’t thank you enough!” No, I thought, I guess you can’t!

Well, cutting to the chase, my mentor was delighted to take part in an additional bit of bullying foolery (in today’s world, they’d probably arrest me for such a prank!). We went on a bit longer before finally divulging that it was all just a prank!

He took it well, and turned out to be a decent student. But a year or so later, out of the blue, he simply failed to show up in the lab and left his research altogether. No warning or explanation. A new career/life. And I can’t help wondering whether I contributed, ever-so-slightly to pushing him over the edge. But if I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again: in science (as in life) one needs a thick skin to survive…


In other news of the day: My novel Welcome Home, Sir about a scientist with post traumatic stress disorder is now available from Amazon Kindle as an e-book!

Note the different covers, since the e-book is my own publication. Guess whose house is on the cover of the e-book?


The paper version cover: Welcome Home, Sir

The Kindle e-book cover: Welcome Home, Sir


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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19 Responses to My best Ph.D. prank

  1. Steve
    Stick with the mixture of content – when I wrote something similar about being uncertain whether the pot pourri worked on my blog, people seemed happy enough to encourage me. So let me do the same for you! I enjoy reading your rants just as much as about your mischievous side (as above) and your concerns as a PI. Happy New Year and here’s to happy blogging in 2012.

  2. Ha ha! During my PhD, I was pranked into thinking that I’d be a failure unless I succeeded in the academic track. Man, they pulled it off for years.

    Steve, “best” implies that you performed more than one PhD pranks. What was your worst?

    • Steve Caplan says:

      “Ha ha! During my PhD, I was pranked into thinking that I’d be a failure unless I succeeded in the academic track. Man, they pulled it off for years.”

      That’s no prank, man–that’s REAL.

      My “worst prank?” Oh, man–there were SO many! Probably my phone call to a friend in the lab next door awarding him a prize from a University in Mumbai/Bombay, India, featuring my patented Indian accent. $10,000, and I heard him on the phone to his mother as soon as I hung up telling her he was going to buy a new car! When I asked him in the same accent “what kind of car,” he chased me around the department with a fire extinguisher…

  3. ricardipus says:

    Note to self: never, ever get a job working anywhere even slightly near Dr. S. Caplan of Omaha. 😉

    Excellent pranks both – I rather like the fake-Indian-accent prize one, first because I have also used a bogus Indian accent at times, and second because it’s a classic example of one that would never work today (people being too bombarded by offshore spam emails and telemarketing). A true classic of the lost kind, I think.

  4. steve caplan says:

    We definitely need to have a 2 way conversation!

    Yes- you’d think these scam accents would be a dying art, but my dad–who knows me for the past 47 years, falls for it on the phone every time. Slow earning curve!

    • ricardipus says:

      I once used it to order 47 chests of drawers from a friend who managed a furniture store. It almost worked. The phrase “Heppelwhite Bowfront Chest” rolls off the tongue beautifully in a mock-Mumbai accent. I suggest trying it yourself. 😉

  5. Frank says:

    Steve – re. your ‘voice’, I agree with Athene – just stick to what you feel comfortable with. Striving to find a particular voice you run the danger of finding a fake accent (Indian or otherwise). I think your ‘voice’ is something that other people will hear and describe.

    One of the bonuses for me of moving to OT was being able to throw out all notions of what I was ‘supposed’ to write about. We can just write about whatever we find interesting, amusing or annoying.

  6. Steve Caplan says:

    It may be that fake accents is what I do best…


  7. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Yes, keep up the good work on the blog and the pranks, Steve!

    If you need any new prank ideas, an old thread at Nature Network might help 🙂

    Oh, never mind – the page I was planning to link to seems to have disappeared. Hopefully not for good because some of the comments were AWESOME and I will be SO MAD if they’ve been deleted. We had a very explicit promise that our archives would not be deleted – I have it in an email if needed.

    Sorry, thread hijack over.

    • rpg says:

      Cath, I never look at NN anymore. Just tried to look at it (blurgh. It really is dead, isn’t it?) and couldn’t find my old blog. I wouldn’t be surprised at the lies they told—but if you can winkle out your archives I can convert them to OT format for you.

  8. I’m now scared of Steve, you gotta write what you like, I think, otherwise your blog turns into another admin job or something, we get enough of that I think….

  9. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    OK, now that Richard has kindly imported my Nature Network blog archives into OT, here’s the link!

  10. so for my 8th grade graduating prank…….we took some alumni kids, wrote names from the 2002 yr book down, and covered the school’s recycling bin outside in saran wrap. THE WHOLE THING. then we used black duct tape to secure it, and poured apple juice over everything leaving it all sticky. we left a note that said: We <3 u, ___(name of school)_________ thanx 4 everything and thanx 4 letting us go thru with our sr prank! luv, class of 2011

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