Thursday, March 31, 2005

Why all the negativity?

So I haven't written much lately because I've been pretty busy in the lab. Something came up this week that I thought would be worth discussing, though.

A couple of the postdocs in my lab, their ages are something like 30-ish (+/- 2 years). One of them got up recently and gave a lab meeting where he used some new technology, and he doesn't trust it because it relies on statistics and computers to handle large amounts of data. You mostly don't see everything that goes on behind the scenes, and it makes him uncomfortable.

So he thinks it's all crap.

I was astounded that anyone my age, but especially a scientist, would be a) so ignorant of computers and b) so paranoid about them as to say some of the stuff this guy said.

I mean, if you're 30 and you already closed your mind for business...?

The idea that this guy is in academia terrifies me. How many of him are there? He seems nice enough, very thoughtful about a lot of things, but really unenthused about science. I mean, if you have qualms about something, and you can't figure out how to do experiments to allay your fears, what are you doing here? I hope for all our sakes that he leaves if it will make him happier. He just got a fellowship and doesn't seem to care. Can I just say, we should have some kind of enthusiasm test you have to pass before you even apply for a fellowship? I mean, there are plenty of gung-ho people out there, why give one to someone who's just looking for a chance to jump ship?

I'm used to these kinds of paranoid attitudes from the older generations, although I have to admit it's somewhat foreign to me since my family is very pro-computer, and always has been. Even if they don't always understand what the computers are doing, my family thinks they are a good thing, a big technological advance that changed our way of life for the better.

There's another guy who is similar, but worse. He doesn't trust anything unless it's all or nothing. Alive or dead is about his level of comfort. I'm very relieved to hear he'll be going to industry, because the idea of someone like that having students makes my blood crawl. It's one thing to be that paranoid about your own data. But in biology, where most things are gray areas, it means that the vast majority of stuff your students bring you, you won't believe.

What really gets me is people of my generation - what would you call it, W? we weren't quite generation X? not that I want to be associated with the letter W in any way- who go into science and proceed to be so negative, I don't know how they get up in the morning, much less come to lab or do experiments. I mean, I am far from Mary Sunshine myself, but the stuff that makes me negative usually has to do with people, not technology. In general, I like technology. I admire people who can invent things to do stuff more easily, and stuff we couldn't do before. Although it might not be perfect, I think it's worth my time to understand how these programs work, so I can get the most out of my data. And why not? I like data. I like analyzing data (or rather, I like analyzing the results...).

I feel sorry for postdocs who don't.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Brain ache

I just spent the last few hours (almost four, actually) analyzing data I collected a month ago. It took me this long to figure out what I needed to do, write (and commission from the boyfriend) the appropriate scripts and plugins that didn't exist, and then run the programs. It's still mostly by hand, but what we charitably call 'semi-automated.' I made little graphs at the end, very satisfying.

My eyes are red, my wrist is sore, and my brain is fried.

The data support what I think is going on, but I feel like I'm about to do something a former advisor warned me about:

"Understanding biology is like using your forehead to break down a brick wall."


This has happened to me before- I have some inkling of what is going on, but I know it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to prove it.

In some cases, I have abandoned projects- optimistically, 'put them aside for a while.'

I have to wonder how many discoveries and ideas have fallen by the wayside for precisely this reason.

Sadly, because of the way we do science- and by that I mean, counting the number of papers you have divided by the number of years you've been in science- there is little guarantee of reward for undertaking projects such as these. And by that I mean, for someone who is thinking about applying for faculty positions in the near future, working on something that could easily take several years to complete is probably not the wisest career move.

But I am torn, of course, because my advisor will be excited about this, she thinks I am right, and she is not easily intimidated. I have to admire people who don't shy away from a challenge.

Of course, she's not the one who has to actually do all the work. It makes me tired just thinking about it!

On the other hand, the news about funding is so depressing these days, it does make me wonder if it wouldn't be safer? wiser? to hang out as a postdoc until we have a new president, and hopefully a new NIH budget. It's ridiculous of course, and chances are good that I won't be able to stand staying an underling, but this might be a safe time to hang out, work on an insanely hard project, and wait to see if the proposal for new investigator funding actually pans out.

Oh who am I kidding, there is no way that's going to be ready in time to help me!

Sigh. So I am drafting a paper and a grant, and trying to get up the nerve to design- and start- the next series of experiments.

Mostly I want to take a nap.

It's sunny outside... I'm picturing myself on the beach with a book- NOT A COMPUTER- over my face.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Not feeling controversial

Well, interestingly enough, the responses I've been getting to various blogs here have only served to reinforce my feelings about my last post.

Much as I enjoy being provocative, I actually don't enjoy most of the feedback!

People seem to think I'm serious about the ageism stuff- I'm really not. Others of you think I'm actually seeking your advice. I'm really not. I'm just thinking out loud. So your comments- you know who you are- aren't exactly educating me about things I haven't considered. And very few of you have made comments that I found genuinely thought-provoking. But I'm sure it's just more self-serving blog culture- you want to post here so your blog link will appear in a comment, maybe I will visit and see what you're about. Maybe I will. Others might as well. Just, please don't underestimate me while taking up space on my blog page. It's insulting.

Worse than that, it's quite obvious from the comments I'm receiving that scientists are just as bad as journalists. We always complain that journalists reporting on science tend to ignore the qualifying words that we use- "suggests that" vs. "is", "in some cases" vs. "always". etc.

In my case I tend to use words like "generally" and "most", which in my mind implies that there are, as in biology, exceptions to every 'rule.' But those of you who have sent me comments have obviously chosen to ignore the qualifiers.

Shame on you! I'm sure you do the same thing when you read discussion sections of papers. You're probably the same people who get upset when people suggest testable models and then don't support them with data- THAT'S WHY THEY'RE CALLED MODELS! We're going to test them in the next paper!


To the two people who suggested I should post more often, I just want to say that I've been having problems with Blogger- not the least of which is very slow loading, blogs and comments getting lost in the ether, and spotty responses from the support team. My last blog actually disappeared when I first posted it, so either some resourceful support person fished it out of a temporary directory, or it just took a really long time to appear. These kinds of things are pretty frustrating when you consider that I'm posting in my spare time, hahaha, while incubating various things in lab.

Had a pretty frustrating weekend- the boyfriend is writing his dissertation, he is entering the Crazy Zone that everyone has to pass through before leaping through the burning hoop on the other side. I am trying to be supportive, but it is stressful. I'm having problems figuring out how to analyze some data, have been struggling with my computer for many hours and ultimately decided I just don't know what I'm doing, and until I make up my mind, no computer program in the world will fix it for me.


Visited with a friend who is now a science writer, realized we are growing apart in our different cultures- as in, she has lots of money, and seems to think that's important, and I don't. Very depressing since we seem to have very little left in common.

And last night (this morning?) I had a dream about eating a banana. I don't like bananas, btw. According to my dream book, eating a banana means that I am approaching a period of "hard work with little reward." Just what I needed on a Monday. Sure enough, I got in this morning to find that my blot had fallen off the rocker over the weekend, and dried out. Lovely! Such fail-safe equipment we have here! So I am starting that experiment over again (this was already the 2nd try).

Tell me again why I'm doing this- no, wait, I don't want to know why you think I'm doing this. Tell me again to quit whining and get back to work.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Women op-eds

If you haven't read it, check out Maureen Dowd's column from March 13th in the NY Times .

Then, if you can, read Deborah Tannen's column from March 15th in the LA Times .

I'll summarize them here for those of you who don't subscribe to every newspaper on the planet:

Maureen Dowd says that women want to be liked, not attacked. She says this is why women feel less comfortable writing opinion columns for newspapers, and in fields like science where the main methods of communication involve a lot of debate, sometimes very angry debate.

Deborah Tannen goes on to expound about how boys show affection, and learn well, by fighting with each other, starting from a very early age. I like a particular example she uses of boys and girls building towers with blocks. The boys get almost as much enjoyment out of destroying each others' towers as they did building them, while the girls have a hard time understanding how that could possibly be fun.

Apparently there was a cartoon in the New Yorker recently showing a girl and boy looking at each other. The girl is thinking, "does he like me?" and the boy is thinking "should I kick her?"

Anyway, I can definitely understand this because Deborah Tannen goes on to say that women are not used to being attacked, and generally don't respond well or perform their best when asked questions in an attacking way, vs. when they are having a calm discussion about the same topics. Men, on the other hand, tend to rise (ahem) to the occasion when a battle is afoot.

In general, I can hold my own, but I have to admit I hate being the minority woman giving a seminar to a group of men who are attacking me during the 'question' period at the end. I noticed in grad school that having more than one other woman in the room made all the difference in my thesis committee. If the committee had 5 people and one was a woman, that was not good enough. I had to have 2 women, 6 people total, to get enough of a balance that the men would behave themselves.

I'm rarely someone to make generalizations about men vs. women in terms of 'inherent' vs. cultural differences, but this may be one of those rare instances where I have to agree. I think most women, even those who are most battle-ready, would inherently prefer not to have everything always be a fight. As Deborah Tannen puts it, there is a better way.


Thursday, March 10, 2005

to convince or not to convince?

Maybe I am just PMSing, but I am having one of those weeks. Two days ago, my neighbor offered to make dinner for me to say thanks for feeding her (incredibly unfriendly) cat while she was out of town. Somehow I ended up stirring the risotto for quite a while, and feeling like I was making dinner for myself. And I would have made something else if I had been planning on doing the cooking!

Anyway, at some point during the evening, when my boyfriend wasn't around, she suggested she might give my name to some people to serve on a committee. And I asked what kind of committee, etc. and it turns out it has something to do with postdocs, but not with something particularly relevant to my experience or interests, and I don't really have time. Somehow, during the course of this conversation, she apparently felt it was her duty to give me a lecture on how I have to be diplomatic on this committee, and patient with these people, and not get fed up or be too critical. I've never been on a committtee with her, so I was really resenting the unsolicited advice, the implication that I'm so undiplomatic and so impatient that I would embarrass her if she recommended me without giving me this pre-emptive lecture, and wondering where she got off assuming she knows anything about how I behave on committees in the first place.


Of course I was too taken aback to say much at the time, except that I wasn't interested in her stupid committee. I'm debating whether it's worth saying something to her about how I didn't appreciate the lecture. I may wait and see if she tries to pull that kind of crap with me again. I swear, when you're not on guard, it's very hard to come up with something to say in response. And I never felt like I needed to be on guard with her before. Of course, it's also hard to get the impression that she ever listens to anything I say. She is one of those people, it's hard to get a word in edgewise. So defending myself was hardly an option, because her endless monologue continued before I had a chance to process, much less respond to, her little comments. Which reminded me of my mother, by the way.

So that was earlier this week. There's a reason I live nowhere near my parents. I'm not much for lectures on how I should live my life, how I should behave, etc. Especially since hypocrites tend to be the people most likely to be giving them!

Then today I mentioned something to my advisor about looking for jobs, and she said

"you could have any job I want if you can just convince the world that you're right (about this really long-term question I am asking with my research).

Well I thought that was the most ridiculous, and depressing, thing I had heard in a long time, because I think it could easily take the rest of my life to "convince the world" that I'm right, no matter how hard I try. We had this conversation where she said,

"well, you can't just discount your critics, you have to think about their concerns. You can't just 'bash them over the head with data', you have to convince them."

And I said, "well, some people are just charismatic and convincing, but I've never been that sort of person and I don't think you can learn how to be that way. "

And she said, "no no no, it's not personality in science, it's all about the data."

And I said, "you just told me not to 'bash them over the head with data'?" ???

Granted, this conversation made no sense, and she had to go so I didn't have time to find out exactly what she was driving at, so I'm guessing.

So my question for today is, do you have to convince all your critics?

I'm inclined to think that scientists are stubborn, and some people will go to their graves without changing their minds.

I'd like the think that scientists who are well-trained and open-minded will be convinced by the data, so long as I don't, as one person put it, "oversell" the model.

For the ones who are skeptical but convinceable, one might think that publishing a series of papers, all with consistent data supporting your model, would eventually win them over. One figure at a time.

And my advisor did say that this last one is what she does, and that I am doing the right thing, in that respect.

But I'm still not sure what she means, or if I am inclined to agree that I should spend a lot of time wondering and worrying about what my critics are criticizing behind my back. Especially when I know that some of their beliefs are just that- beliefs based on artifactual data, like religion. You can have faith if you want to, but you can't prove anything. And in my experience, there is no hope of convincing someone that their beliefs are wrong.

And who am I to tell people what to believe? All I can do is offer suggestions.

I was also thinking today how I have major problems with authority, always have, probably always will. And how maybe, had I gone to church or joined the army, I would have learned the hard way how to deal with authority. But don't you think it's strange there are more classes on leadership and none on fitting in with the crowd (aside from What Not to Wear)? On the one hand, our society supposedly values people who stand out, stick out their necks, make a change in the world, etc. On the other hand, our society does not make it easy for those people to live their lives and make a change in the world. There is always a lot of backlash.

Something about shining brightly and burning candlesticks on both ends, or something. Double-edge swords, etc.