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Chemist who ordered night and weekend work replies to critics

Posted by Christopher Shea  June 29, 2010 01:51 PM

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A 14-year-old letter from a Cal Tech chemist to a junior member of his research team, ordering the young man to work nights and weekends, drew enormous interest from young scientists when it was recently posted on ChemistryBlog--evidence, to many, that graduate students and postdocs are treated like serfs. The letter has also caused the senior scientist involved to receive torrents of hate mail, he tells Brainiac.

In the letter, Erick Carreira, an associate professor at Cal Tech at the time, lit into one Guido Koch for failing to sufficiently long hours. "In addition to the usual work-day schedule, I expect all of the members of the group to work evenings and weekends," Carreira wrote. "You will find that this is the norm here at Caltech....I have noticed that you have failed to come into lab on several weekends ..."

Carreira went on to say that he had no problem with "well-earned" vacation time, but suggested that one earns vacation by working above and beyond the standard work week.

The letter ended with a not-so-veiled threat: "I receive at least one post-doctoral application each day from the U.S. and around the world. If you are unable to meet the expected work-schedule, I am sure that I can find someone else as an appropriate replacement for this important project."

The item proved to be the most-read ever for ChemistryBlog, and the aggrieved tone of many of the comments made clear that little has changed since 1996 in many laboratories.

Reached by email at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, where he runs a lab, Carreira said that the letter has been circulating for a dozen years, and he expressed frustration that it has surfaced again in such a public way. It has caused him to receive "many e-mails that have been threatening and downright inhumane," he wrote. In response to questions about the letter's authenticity, and a request for a more general comment, he forwarded an email that he had sent to an earlier correspondent. It said, in part:

I wonder whether you would think it fair to be judged on the basis of a letter 14 years old, especially when the comments and rash judgments are made without knowledge of the context or the circumstances surrounding the individuals involved. Indeed how does anyone out who is so quick to pass judgement and who is coming to conclusions know that it is not part of a 14-year old joke (or satire as you state) that backfired? ...

I am quite sure everyone has at some time or another an e-mail, photo, letter, note, or comment that when taken out of context can be used to create whatever monster one wishes to envisage. After all no one is perfect. Is it really fair to be haunted by these endlessly? I do not know how old you are, but can you really say you have done nothing you would rather forget about and not be reminded of 14 years later? I like to think people grow and change.

In this note and in a shorter one to me, Carreira said that he had been advised by a lawyer not to comment on the validity or the context of the letter. (I asked him a follow-up question about the oblique suggestions that the letter was some kind of joke, but he has not yet replied.)

He concluded the email he forwarded to me this way: "Guido and I are friends, who routinely stay in touch. This gives you some idea of how serious the letter was and is to him." ChemistryBlog reports that Guido Koch holds a research job at Novartis, in Switzerland.

chemistry.pngThe letter that set off the furor (click to enlarge)

See also BoingBoing, which observes that Koch succeeded professionally "despite his youthful experimentation with the forbidden allure of the weekend."

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