27 August 2003

Ice machine 2, biologists 0

If we have a symbol of the problems that new tenure track faculty at this university face when they try to get research done... it is our ice machine.

An ice machine is not exactly a high tech piece of kit. Freeze water. Break up frozen water into little pieces. That's about it. Not so very complicated. But various people in our department -- including me -- need that shaved ice to do research. I need it to quickly and properly anaesthetize various critters that I work on (cold knocks out crustaceans, you see). In short, the ice machine is a mundane but necessary piece of scientific equipment in our department.

Our ice machine is broken. It broke yesterday.

Now, here's the thing. It's been broken a hell of a lot more than it's been working for the last year. We shall soon have enough data to publish a bloody monograph on the subject of ice machine breakdown.

Over the last year, a distinct pattern has emerged. Ice machine breaks. Ice machine is taken away, leaving bare pipe sticking out of the wall where it should be sitting. My colleague Mike Persans (who is a self-admitted pushy New Yorker) keeps after the maintainence people, asking when it's going to be fixed.

Days turn into weeks. Weeks turn into months.

The ice machine finally returns. It works for about a week, and breaks again. Back to square one.

It's like some weird battle of nerves between the machine and maintenance versus the biologists. I think we biologists are going to be the first to break. Because as far as we've been able to determine, there seems to be absolutely no sense of urgency or comprehension on the part of almost anyone else that we scientists need this thing.

It's gotten to the point that when I go to scientific meetings, or talk to friends, or whatever, about how my job is, I almost inevitably tell them about the ice machine. I asked one of my colleagues, "How long does it take to get an ice machine fixed at Harvard?" He answered, "They never break."

Since I've already been telling my colleagues about these ice machine woes, I have now decided that I will turn to one of my few remaining weapons in this battle: satire. After all, when polite requests, earnest pleas, outright begging on bended knees, patience, threats, and bribes don't solve a problem, maybe it's time to turn to public ridicule.

Maybe I can turn a profit on this. I can start a betting pool. "I'm tipping four months, one week for the next repair. Who wants some of this action?"

The university I work for, UTPA, has the goal of becoming a bona fide research institution. Great goal. Would help my career a lot. But this whole bloody situation with the ice machine just goes to show that a lot of people here do not have a clue what it takes to do research. How are we supposed to conduct experiments when things don't get fixed? In the competitive field of research, comparing a department where equipment doesn't break versus where a campus where the equipment doesn't work isn't a competition, it's absolute black comedy. Or perhaps grim parody.

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