Creme brûlée with a Bic lighter

May 9, 2011

that no, you can’t make creme brulee with a cigarette lighter.

People who succeed as junior faculty are those that are willing to make tasty desserts with a Bic lighter if they have no other choice.

People who won’t so much as try to cook without a gleaming, stainless steel and chrome industrial kitchen are not likely to succeed.


No Responses Yet to “Creme brûlée with a Bic lighter”

  1. bsci Says:

    I think DM is quote-mining a more nuanced piece. A key point of YFS’ piece seems to be that you can make do with whatever you have, but you better know the cost of that decision. You could probably make creme brulee with a bic lighter and a home-built old-school busen burner make from a jar and some piping, but the time required to do that and the inferior end result isn’t worth it.

    You can also make other tasty desserts, but if your client is demanding creme brulee, you need to be clear what’s needed to get that dessert.

    Lots of things in scientific research come down to whether the combination of tools, time and staff you have are able to get the quality of result you want or whether you need to settle for a different study with a different quality result. Often time and people are cheaper than new equipment, but sometimes the total lab investment to get an inferior result is less than the cost of new equipment.


  2. I thought that blogge has been dead for months? Is it back in action?


  3. OK, just read the post. So now the theory is that she failed as a post-doc because PIs always refused to give her the right equipment?


  4. another anonymous person Says:

    When you start your lab, you’re lucky if you have your own cigarette lighter instead of having to borrow it from the lab down the hall. Unless you are eating nothing but creme brulee all day, you’ve got more important things to do with your money than buy ramekins and specialized equipment.

    I strongly recommend that any postdoc who thinks the carrot is setting up their own lab the way they want it actually go visit a new lab sometime. This would be part of the problem of springboarding into faculty positions from postdocs in the best funded NIH labs; you need a reality check of what you are about to get into. I know it was a culture shock to me when I started having to do resource management instead of just ordering anything I wanted to move projects forward.

    When you set up your own lab, you take all the grungy hand-me-downs and functioning 30-year-old pieces of equipment the department has to drop on you, and you say “Thank you for letting me save some of my start up package general funds!” And then you find a way to make your science work with what you have. Setting up your new lab has very little to do with the way you would set up your lab in an ideal world.

    In other words: I agree with DrugMonkey on this one.


  5. becca Says:

    People who are likely to be *happy* as junior faculty are those for whom “ZOMG ITS SCIENCE” trumps pretty much every other concern. Consider:

    People who can’t eat shitty tasting (but interesting) desserts without noting that, in fact, they dost taste like ass, are less likely to succeed as happy faculty.


  6. Dr Becca Says:

    I would RUB STICKS TOGETHER for crème brûlée if I had to!!!!


  7. People who are likely to be *happy* as junior faculty are those for whom “ZOMG ITS SCIENCE” trumps pretty much every other concern.

    What could you possibly know about what it takes for junior faculty in the sciences to be happy?

    For those that aren’t paying attention, becca is an eleventeenth-year grad student, and her numerous opinions about things she can’t possibly know anything about should be viewed skeptically.


  8. drugmonkey Says:

    What could you possibly know about what it takes for junior faculty in the sciences to be happy?

    While it is true that one cannot have personal viewpoints on this until and unless one is junior faculty, I would submit to you we learn a lot from observing and listening to others. In this, there is nothing particularly special about also being faculty that gives special access to the experiences of others. A graduate student who is close to current junior faculty might indeed know more than a tenured old fart for whom the local junior faculty feel that they always have to put up a front.


  9. But you CAN make steak with a creme brulee torch.


  10. namnezia Says:

    I agree with DM here, you have to be adaptable. You can’t wait until you have your fully state of the art lab to begin to do good science. You take what you have, you kludge it together and off you go. You can improve on things as you go along. In my experience, your new lab is likely to be far more resource deficient than your postdoc lab. A big part of doing science is tinkering with random bits until you get things to work. I think half of my lab is held together by duct tape and aluminum foil.

    I’ve worked with people before who won’t start any experiments until their preparation is “perfect”. Going as far as demanding new equipment, etc. Even if they get everything they ask for, they still fail.


  11. yellowfish Says:

    I actually think that having a job where you periodically get to tap into your inner MacGyver is one of the fun parts…


  12. TeaHag Says:

    Today’s research can’t be achieved in a bubble…. be it hand-blown glass purchased via a huge start up package…. or a balloon wheezed into by volunteer undergraduates. Leverage… your brains and skills and see partnerships with other faculty to stretch limited resources would be my strong recommendation. New faculty really need to practice their networking skills from the beginning.

    I kept my most valuable project alive during a lean time by gratefully accepting cast-off 2x culture medium…….. Is that the scientific equivalent of gruel?

    “Please sir… can I have some more???”


  13. NatC Says:



  14. Isis the Scientist Says:


    But, yeah. I thought YFS was gone and writing a book.


  15. anon Says:

    It seems to boil down to what you’re used to. I was a grad student with a jr faculty, and we had to scrape shit off the floor, rifle through storage closets, use bic lighters, duct tape, and all to build our own equipment. When I got to a well-funded lab as a post-doc, I still felt guilty ordering new equipment, especially when it seemed the old stuff was working fine or we could just make it with bits of plastic and duct tape. YFS seems to have been spoiled by her experience as a grad student in what must have been a well-funded lab. Not every lab is like that. It makes productivity a little slower, but it’s productive nonetheless.


  16. ginger Says:

    I’m a little confused why that piece is about cooking in private kitchens, for people who don’t cook. It’s been a bunch of years for me, and then I was neither junior faculty nor grad student, but low-level technician. But. My recollection of the Benchwork Hierarchy is that the PI pays for the equipment and most of the people who use it. And that PIs get to be PIs by dint of having worked in labs and convincing funders that their projects are awsum and their capacity is unique. So isn’t the apter comparison to a professional kitchen?

    (I bet you anything Bourdain knows someone who can caramelize a creme brulee with a Bic. I know someone who did PCR when it involved hours of hand-dipping tubes into water baths.)


  17. When you start your lab, you’re lucky if you have your own cigarette lighter …

    Then you did a poor job getting a decent start-up package.


  18. DrugMonkey Says:

    Perhaps. But you also have your own lab. Some people are willing to run a taco shop or heck, a hotdog cart,, just so long as it is their own restaurant.


  19. drugmonkey Says:

    I was a little worried about you with the whole geography thing….but with this attitude you’ll be just fine Dr B.



  20. brooksphd Says:

    Deep dude… deep

    *tokes on spliff*

    *reaches for another creme brulee*


  21. drugmonkey Says:

    I am much more concerned with the apparent attitude that one has to start right off with the resources of a huge, mature lab or one cannot possibly launch as a newly transitioned independent investigator. In case it isn’t obvious, I am not just responding to MsPhD here. I’ve seen this attitude in other people and I find it self-defeating and incomprehensible. Well…..maybe not incomprehensible. I’ve had my “Science my way or the highway moments before”. But you have to look yourself square in the mirror and ask if you want a career or not. If you do, it’s sacking-up time.


  22. brooksphd Says:

    very similar to my experience, actually


  23. becca Says:

    For those who aren’t paying attention, Physioprof is an unhappy nasty bitter old man who thinks by making me feel bad about taking forever in graduate school, it will somehow make him appear more clever/insightful/happy.


  24. becca Says:

    In my personal experience, the only people who wax nostalgic about doing PCR pre automated thermocycler are old farts who are hopelessly clueless about what benchwork is like because they haven’t done it in decades. They are, in fact, whitewashing over their memories of misery.

    On the other hand, the people I have known who are proud of isolating their own polymerase and doing *insert relatively hazardous but tried and true radioactivity experiments here*, are people who really took a bit of actual pleasure in it at the time, although a certain degree of machismo is also at play in the psychology of them letting you know that they did it that way.

    And the people who are true engineers at heart? They MacGyve the hell out of their e-phys rig without bragging. Why? They don’t even realize it’s not normal to tinker like that.

    *NB: these are only stereotypes (admittedly based on actual people), YMMV


  25. namnezia Says:

    Becca sez: “And the people who are true engineers at heart? They MacGyve the hell out of their e-phys rig without bragging. Why? They don’t even realize it’s not normal to tinker like that.”

    I think they don’t brag because they’re embarrassed to admit that their “imaging chamber” is just a cardboard box with a hole in it for the camera.


  26. gerty-z Says:



  27. Dr Becca Says:

    I am working very hard on “the whole geography thing.” While it isn’t easy, the fact that I will have a shiny new lab that I designed top to bottom and that my department did many many things to try to make me happy is helping.


  28. anonymous Says:

    DM, I’m sorry but you sound like the old technophobe farts in my department that think everything was better in the old days before these fancy-pants new machines.

    Anyway wasn’t the point that you should at least consider experimenter time in the cost-benefit equation? If you have to repeat your experiment three times using the old, cheap technique which gives variable results, wouldn’t it have been cheaper in the long run to buy the machine and go for one-and-done? Our lab (which is POOR AS DIRT) has switched completely to commercial taq because we were having to rerun too many PCR’s on our homemade taq and it had become a huge waste of time and money.

    It could be true that YFS is just a whiner and her PI’s had done those Cost-Benefit analyses, and simply decided that her saved time was simply not enough to justify this particular piece of gear. On the other hand it’s also possible that this PI was out of touch and didn’t realize how much money he was wasting on personnel that would be saved by equipment X.

    I do know a lot of PI’s that buy some giant piece of expensive equipment that is never used, so it’s certainly true that PI’s don’t always make the most rational decisions with regard to equipment.


  29. another anonymous person Says:

    Some time, just for kicks, go take startup packages at $500k, $750k, and $1m, and price out what you can do with them if you assume 2-3 years to land a first major grant. Remember that money doesn’t start flowing in until a year after the application goes out, if successful, and that it is rare to land your first grant on your first application. Assume $35k-$150k for most equipment, 50%-80% overhead, 30-60% fringe, and grad student tuition at $15k-$50k per year, depending on your university. Make a decision about your summer salary if you didn’t negotiate it, or your 50% salary at most med schools. If you run out of funds, you have to fire someone.

    Have fun!

    When you come back, you can borrow my lighter. I bought it when the first grant came in before schedule. Until then, I used matches.


  30. DrugMonkey Says:

    This is another issue, if related. I, for one, always want to know how much tech or trainee time we’re burning to do something the manual way versus the buy-from-vendor-for$$ way. People time is expensive and good managers know that. Bad ones just think the grads should put in 10 extra hours a week.

    However, when you have the personnel costs covered anyway, sometimes you have to go with the less expensive upfront way and waste the person-time.

    Asfar as wasting cash on unused toys, yeah it happens. Everyone can be seduced by machines that go PING! There is also a subtlety about unexpended funds that we’ve discussed before. Occasionally the PI is in the position of buying spendy kit or losing the money…


  31. odyssey Says:

    And then there’s the issues of what to do :

    a) x years later when all your fancy machines that go “ping!” begin to fail.

    b) when your research takes you in directions that require fancy machines that go “sploink!” rather than the fancy machines that go “ping!” your lab is stocked with.

    There ain’t no start-up for mid- to senior-level faculty unless they’re willing (and able) to move. And equipment grants are few and far between. If you haven’t learned to borrow, repurpose/reuse/recycle/MacGyver, or collaborate, you’re pretty much screwed.


  32. namnezia Says:

    Its not a matter of saying the “olde ways are better”. Its a question about resources. If you don’t have the resources to have the shiniest, fanciest state of the art thingamabob, it doesn’t mean that your science will grind to a halt. You adapt to what you have and move on. I have friends who have set up labs in Latin America with extremely low resources, and they are doing great science. They just have to have a clever experimental design that works with what they have.


  33. Isis the Scientist Says:

    Sometimes the Bic lighter is a better tool than the fancy-pants creme brulee roaster.


  34. Dr. O Says:

    In the current market, it’s more likely that you’re taking what you can get. It ain’t optimal, but it’s a job. And if you want to do your own research these days, you gotta learn to not be picky. If I was that picky, I’d be out hunting for a new career right now.


  35. becca Says:

    The Bic is a more functional, and certainly more versatile, tool. However, have you seen a creme brule blowtorch? Soooooooo pretty…

    I also think that a significant chunk of humanity has a weird sense of propriety. If it’s *your* Bic lighter, that can be more fun to work with than *somebody else’s* creme brule blowtorch. I think DM sincerely underappreciated that thread in YFS’s post. When it’s your kitchen, you get to decide if a Bic will do, or it’s totally worth growing your own herbs (which are tastiest anyway) so you can afford the blowtorch.

    Full disclaimer: I might possibly have a creme brule blowtorch in my kitchen. That I have never used.


  36. becca Says:

    That, also.


  37. Student of Fack Says:

    I will creme brulee my boyfriend in the dark with a BicLighter. Will it not be fun ?. Fack !


  38. Isis the Scientist Says:

    Or, sometimes a Bic lighter actually performs the task better than the fancy, expensive device. That has nothing to do with any of the stuff in your comment.


  39. bikemonkey Says:

    What are you talking about Odyssey? Mid to senior level faculty just propose to do some new stuff they’ve never done before in a brand new R01 and their buddies on study section hand ’em the cash to buy the sploink! machine. What’s the problem?


  40. bikemonkey Says:

    Outside of physiology, it’s kinda hard to get away with a paper bag and a stopwatch, Isis.


  41. MissPhD Says:

    Obviously the idea of what is really “essential” is a sliding scale depending on who you’re talking to, but a lack of riches can breed resourcefulness and creativity that leads to more thoughtful experiments than just running samples through big, shiny new machine. There’s more than one way to skin a cat….er…..cook creme brulee.

    And as for YFS’s comment that “the truth turned out to be something more like “there is one in the next building over” ‘ – what’s wrong with that? I have no problem with borrowing other labs’ equipment. It’s called collaboration and it saves our money to buy something we really need that no one else has that they can come over and borrow.


  42. bob Says:

    IIRC, YFS had a difficult PhD funding-wise that involved a lot of scrounging and borrowing, so she certainly wasn’t spoiled by that.


  43. becca Says:

    Well, willing to *threaten* to move, anyway. One of my committee members got ‘retention funds’ for her lab by threatening to move. I did not know you could do that.


  44. becca Says:

    cat skin does not belong in creme brulee. Not even if you can get an NIH grant for it.


  45. Miss MSE Says:

    I have, in fact, made creme brulee with a Bic lighter. The key is an insulative layer between your thumb and the lighter. I’ve since learned the broiler method, but I have done it…


  46. I am much more concerned with blah, blah, blah…

    Like I am supposed to give a flying fucke what you are “concerned with”? AHAHAHAHAH!!!!!!!



  47. I am a man, so you got that part right.


  48. pinus Says:

    boots on the ground say the nimble bird gets the worm. or brule. or grant.


  49. proflikesubstance Says:

    Assume $35k-$150k for most equipment, 50%-80% overhead, 30-60% fringe, and grad student tuition at $15k-$50k per year, depending on your university.

    If you’re paying overhead off your start-up someone is hazing your ass and keeping the profit.


  50. DrugMonkey Says:

    Of course you can becca. But you’d better have an offer in hand or your Uni will ignore you. And, you’d better be ready to leave if they don’t give n to your demands…


  51. Is it really? One of my old lab mates from graduate school was recently offered a TT position and his start-up is quite generous.

    I’d contend that now, more then ever, you need to be picky. If a department is willing to stiff you in the start-up department, they’re essentially telling you that they don’t give a rats patooie if you succeed or not. If that is the case, do you really want to work there? You NEED a stocked lab, you NEED those first couple of semesters free from teaching, you NEED that technician help before your own money starts coming in … these are non-negotiable (the extent of them are, but they really should be a staple in every package).

    Some departments I suppose are willing to cut corners and blame it on the trying times, and screw their new hires. I’d contend that you don’t want to work in a department that has such an attitude. Of course, I’m not currently looking for a job so I can sit in my ivory tower and give such advice so YMMV.


  52. Isis the Scientist Says:

    Not my fault you all picked shitty fields.


  53. DrugMonkey Says:

    TomJoe, this analysis of yours assumes people will be fielding multiple competing offers from locations and Universities that are equal apart from startup offers. In such rare cases, your advice is trivially obvious. Trouble is, equal condition, competing offers are not usually in play.


  54. another anonymous person Says:

    Depends on size of item and source of funds. Some of it is overhead free; other parts are not, much like fringe rates change depending which source of funding you assign someone to. The bureaucracy of funding rules also shocked me when I started my own lab!

    I do admit to oversimplifying the above, but I also still roll my eyes at anyone who thinks you can get startup funds sufficient for unlimited gleaming equipment anywhere other than a few top institutions given the current cost of research. Shockingly large sums of money disappear quickly when you start adding up laboratory costs, and you really don’t want to have to rely on the good will and budgetary situation of your department to bridge you over to that first grant.


  55. becca Says:

    Oh, she’s a pretty awesome committee member, so I suspect she did indeed have such an offer in hand.
    To be clear, I knew you could get a salary bump that way (indeed, in many cases it might be the only way to get one), I just didn’t know about start-up fund like money. For that matter, I guess I haven’t thought much about startup funds for changing jobs as an established prof. It’s only fair to give someone startup even if it’s not a ‘new lab’- you can’t take the most spendy equipment with you in many cases- how does that work for small stuff, anyway? Do most institutions let you take your PCR machines and samples?
    I remember it getting pretty sticky for one PI who moved his painstakingly collected clinical tumor samples… without formal permission (something about renting a Uhaul and doing it in the dark of night might have been dramatized a bit from the source of gossip I heard it from). We were all gently scandalized about it, cause I’d never heard of anyone else doing it, but this reminds me- is it a grey zone ethically, or is it a huge no-no?


  56. odyssey Says:

    Since grants are actually given to the institution, not the PI, and start-up funds generally come from the institution, anything in the lab bought with those sources of money officially belongs to the institution. So in principle the institution could refuse to let a PI take anything when she moves. In practice, at least in my limited experience, this is negotiated and the PI generally gets to take most, if not all, of the small stuff.

    I don’t know for sure, but suspect that taking clinical samples without permission would be a big no-no. I would imagine there would have to be dealings with IRB’s (and likely other officials) at both the new and old institutions to allow this.


  57. odyssey Says:



  58. physioprof Says:



  59. Dr Becca Says:

    Bring nested commenting back!!!! Half these comments make no sense now.


  60. Dr. O Says:

    Arghhhhh – I can’t figure out what’s going on. Bring the nesting back, PLZZZZ!!!!


  61. anon Says:

    Fuckin CPP. Must you bend to his every whim? Who cares if he can’t follow the threads – the rest of us are fine.


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