On the connection between (April) fools and trolls

Trolls seldom have anything worthwhile to say. They twist, bully, rant and rave and insult, putting forth their worst drivel to provoke a response. All behind a cloak of anonymity. That is the nature of a troll; inevitably a loser who dares not show his face. So when such a troll spouts outright lies that can easily be refuted, there is seldom any value in refuting the hateful comments, because the troll already knows they are lies, and is only seeking validation.

In other words, response to a troll allows him to think that he is on the same level as the writer/blogger/journalist, in his perverted mind at least. By ignoring any troll comments, this leaves the troll with the uncertainty as to whether the author has even bothered to read his lowly words – something that I envision is probably the most frustrating thing for a troll: not to be placed at the same “level” as the author.

But for once, glancing at a troll’s comments actually served a useful – if somewhat disparate –  purpose: the relationship between troll and fool reminded me that I need to blog about my most recent April Fool’s joke.

Recently, in my capacity of chair of our departmental graduate and admissions committee, one of my many tasks was to provide a detailed orientation and explanation of the “Comprehensive Exam” that our second year graduate students are required to take. This exam is essentially a very well-structured exercise in grant-writing, in which the students learn to research a topic distinct from their own, write an NIH (National Institutes of Health) style ‘specific aims’ page, receive feedback and input from their examination committee, and ultimately write a full 12 page proposal and defend it in an oral exam. The whole process occurs in a structured manner in the course of about 5 months. I should also point out that the issue of ‘how distinct the proposal needs to be’ from the student’s own research is always a bone of contention…

I want to take this opportunity to point out that I am immensely proud of my department’s graduate program, the overall level of the students in it, and particularly my own students. Furthermore, it is also important for me to note that my general comments about professional amongst graduate students (or lack thereof), in NO WAY reflects my view of the students in my own graduate program. My Guardian article was a very general reflection based on some students in some institutions, and the non-professional examples and attitudes cited had nothing to do with students in my program or lab.

In fact, I feel it necessary to point out that students from our program do very, very well, on average, in scientific careers. Students from my own laboratory have done exceptionally well. I have already produced an exceptional tenure-track assistant professor at an outstanding and highly competitive institute in India (IISER Mohali), and have 4 graduates at top-grade laboratories in prestigious institutions here in the US doing and thriving in post-doctoral positions. Certainly potential independent investigators and PIs, in a few years time. I have also been told explicitly, on several occasions by colleagues who encountered my former students that they are exceptionally well-trained, especially in comparison with graduate students from those high-tier ivy league institutions.

Okay, enough self-congratulatory back-patting, and now to the point!

Those who know me are familiar with my penchant for little practical jokes, and although I have had less time and energy to pursue this passion in recent years, I still enjoy pulling someone’s leg once in awhile. An example was when I announced to the lab members that I accepted a position in Anchorage, Alaska, and we were moving the lab in 3 months time. Anyone want to join me? Of course that was an April Fool’s joke, but no one caught on until I reassured them that we were not going to be Sarah Palin’s neighbors…

This April Fool’s I prepared a Power Point to orient the students on how to go through the process of their Comprehensive Examination. I began with a slide highlighting the differences between this year and the previous year. I put up an animated slide that said:

1) This year, to allow students more room to develop their proposals, we are moving from 12 pages to 25 pages, as the NIH grants used to be.

2) This year, due to the continuing conflict on how close the proposal can be to the students’ research, the graduate committee has decided that each student prepare TWO 25 page proposals: one on his/her own research, and one distinct from his/her research.

I wish I had had a camera to photograph the gaping mouths, the disbelief, the “how could this be happening to us?” A shocked silence hit the room. I was in my element, perfectly serious, explaining how these changes would benefit the students and the examination process. But I am merciful. I waited a few seconds, savoring the exprssions, before the next animation kicked in.


It’s a good thing the students were so relieved. Otherwise they might have roasted me over a spitfire. One thing for sure: it was certainly an icebreaker for the rest of the orientation!

Until April Fools, 2015.





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). https://www.amazon.com/kindle-dbs/entity/author/B006CSULBW? All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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