Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Days of hours of minutes

A blog buddy (who may or may not wish to identify themselves in the comments) posted a wee ditty on their Facebook page recently that rang very true indeed:
just received something from a fellow sufferer that will only be funny to Secretaries (with a capital 'S'):

"And so while the great ones depart to their dinner,
The Secretary stays, growing thinner and thinner.
Racking his brain to record and report,
What he thinks that they think that they ought to have thought."
The post made me literally laugh out loud. I'm responsible for taking minutes at several recurring meetings - it only takes one instance of "it was decided that the prospect of cruel would be better than the reflex perspective analysis*" to see why someone with a scientific background is needed for this task - and part of the reason for my relative bloggy silence recently is that I was down in San Diego last week at a research collaboration progress meeting, typing away so fast that I'm surprised my laptop keyboard is still intact and functional.

The meetings themselves are hard work, both physically and mentally. I type and type and type almost non-stop for hours on end, battling through the hand, wrist and shoulder pains (laptop keyboards are not designed for such marathon sessions) as I try to capture every single little thing that's said, struggling with the balance between brevity and speed versus future intelligibility. Unlike the other attendees I can't zone out or divert my attention to another task even for a couple of minutes, a lesson I learned the hard way after embarrassingly failing to capture an important action item at one of my first meetings with these collaborators, while I was checking my (work!) email. I even have to keep typing during the coffee and lunch breaks, as people come up to me asking for additions to be made to the minutes following one-on-one conversations they just had with another attendee while getting their coffee.

The most stressful part comes at the end of each day, though, when I'm asked for a list of all the action items generated. This request took me completely by surprise the first time, but luckily I'd decided that it might be useful to have the action items highlighted in red text. Even now though it can be an embarrassing process that can make me look really stupid as I scroll through pages and pages of text** trying to read out the action items in a coherent manner. I'm not sure everyone realises that there's just not enough time in the heat of the moment to type in more than "ACTION: [PI] will get back to [collaborator] with answers to the above questions". This item might refer to a full page of discussion about how to proceed with a project, but makes no sense when read out in a list, separated from its original context.

I also colour code (in blue) any amusing little conversations or observations that pop up that can't go into the actual formal minutes, but that might make good blog fodder. The bloggable LOLs from this meeting include an amusing conversation:
My boss: "Who did this scoring and analysis? This project needs to be led by a human pathologist".

Hilarious collaborator: "Well, he's definitely human..."

a promise to myself:
"I hereby swear to never, ever, use 'homozygose' as a verb" (my boss had just done this, in the context of trying to engineer a cell line homozygous for a gene mutation that we only ever see as a heterozygote in a certain tumour type).

and an observation from me about another lazy bit of technical jargon that, like "poor prognostic marker", doesn't stand up to grammatical scrutiny. This time the example was "spontaneous mouse models", which caused me to have to suppress a snigger as I imagined a bunch of white mice suddenly popping into existence in a lab. Sure, "mouse model of spontaneous tumour development" is more of a mouthful, but at least it's accurate.


Unlike the person in the verse , I do at least get to go to dinner - an excellent Mexican restaurant this last time. Mmmmm, guacomole. A few of us also enjoyed some excellent local beer on a beachfront patio on the second day, as the meeting finished a couple of hours early and we couldn't change our flights home. The chances of me growing thinner and thinner on one of these trips are, well, slim.

The effort continues when I get back to the office and have to prepare formal, neat versions of the notes for circulation to all internal and external collaborators and their bosses. I have to re-order the original minutes to capture follow-up comments and action items that someone suddenly thought of in the middle of a presentation about another project, to make the information flow more logically within and between sections, and to remove some of the more random dead-end tangents completely. I also have to clarify or remove any items that really don't make any sense (I'm usually too busy typing for any critical analysis of what I'm writing), and add some context into all the action items.

I also have to fix all the typos and auto-corrects, turning all the "serious ovation cancers" back into "serous ovarian cancers" and such, and adding all the optional little luxuries that I don't have time for during the actual meetings - luxuries such as full words, sentences, paragraphs, and grammar. You know, the minor details. Once that's done I can format the document, try to proofread it, realise I'm heartily sick of the damn thing and only be able  to bring myself to skim it superficially, send it out, and then spot an embarrassing surviving typo as I go to close the document.


Oh well, at least I remembered to take out my observation about mice spontaneously popping into existence.

An action item about the cakes to be served at the next meeting did make it through, but that was deliberate.

Nope, definitely not gonna get any thinner playing this game.


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*Seen in minutes from a meeting that took place before my time, when the admin assistants were responsible for all minutes, including those of very technical meetings. Sentence should read "it was decided that prospective accrual would be better than retrospective analysis". I  think.

**At the actual 1.5 day meeting I typed a total of 30 pages of notes, which translated to 31 pages of nicely formatted formal minutes with each major item starting on a new page. 

7 comments:

  1. You're such a Grammer cop. We use heatshock to make our flies homozygose all the time!

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  2. But do you "make them homozygous", or do you "homozygose this allele"? :)

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  3. Thanks for that heads up, Cath. I will now do everything in my power to avoid being Secretary of anything.

    -antipodean

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  4. I love the image of "spontaneous mouse models."

    Sounds like you had a good time in San Diego, even thought it was intense. Mmmmm... guacomole.

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  5. "definetly human" :) haha.

    Sounds like a fun thing to do, keeping the notes I mean. You do know it's the power.... to write what you want them to have decided ;)

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  6. Ugh. Got RSI and a headache just thinking about it. Being minutes secretary is something I avoid at all costs though Mrs Crox sometimes finds herself sucked into these things. But she's a quicker typist than wot I am having done a secretarial course - a long time ago, but these things are like elephants riding bicycles.

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  7. I didn't mean to give the impression that it's 100% sheer hell - when the subject of the meeting is really interesting (as this one was), it can be kinda fun! I'd rather take and write up 2 days worth of minutes about the kinds of science we're doing than 2 hours worth of minutes about sales projections and label formats in my last job! (I wasn't responsible for minutes in that job, thank FSM!)

    It's also great to see the big picture updates on all our projects, and to see the connections between the individual threads. As project manager, I usually focus on things like "will you have repeated this experiment by next week?", "did that antibody validate?", and "did those reagents arrive?" So seeing "these are all the genes of interest we've identified, look how many of them group into the same pathways, the ones in red are druggable, and here's how we think they're related to cancer" is very, very cool!

    So, Antipodean, just pick and choose your projects carefully!

    Bean-Mom, yeah, it was fun overall, although tiring! (up at 5am to catch first flight down on the Monday morning, taxi from the airport straight to a meeting, finish at 6, 10 minutes in a hotel room to drop my bags and brush my teeth, dinner, back to hotel to spend an hour answering urgent emails, up before 7 to have breakfast before the taxis came to take us back to another all day meeting, flight at 7:30pm, layover in Seattle, land at midnight, immigration, customs, taxi, in bed at 1:30 am, back to work the next day to a backlog... yeah). But it was worth it for the cool science, beer, guacamole, and the image of spontaneous mice.

    Chall, yeah, it's tempting to sneak in something like "it was agreed that Cath did an awesome job and should be given chocolate and a raise". I'm actually also writing a series of blog posts for a charitable funding agency, on behalf of my boss, and it's again tempting to write "I couldn't function without my grant wrangler, please send chocolate and more money" :)

    Cromercrox, I can only type quickly enough if I sacrifice accuracy. There are many, many typos in my drafts!

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