Thursday, July 28, 2005

Career Aspirations

Today is Big Machine Science Day: Aka, waiting for my cells to do something interesting under the microscope.

It's going to be a slow day. I knew this, and I almost brought Harry Potter with me, but then felt guilty. What was I thinking??

Someone wrote in and asked if I would settle, as they put it, for an adjunct position if I can't get a faculty position. I guess the answer is no. I would rather go to industry and work regular hours and get paid decently, or go to policy and feel like I'm making a difference on that level. Or go to journalism school. Or teach high school in California, where I'm told they will let anyone be a teacher.

Lately, I'd rather work in a coffee shop.

See, unlike most scientists, I have other interests. I don't feel like science is the only thing I could ever be good at. In fact I don't think I'm any better at science than I am at anything else, I just chose to focus on doing research for the last few years. So I have some stuff on my CV and whatever, it's kind of fun and fulfills my need to make a contribution to society. Keeps me busy and I'm usually not bored (this week has been unusually dull...). Not being bored is way up there on my list of priorities.

But I don't like science enough to be an underpaid, overeducated slave for the rest of my life, sorry. All the cool stuff just doesn't make up for all the bureaucratic, hypocritical, egomaniacal.... bullshit.

At some point I would like to have the kind of job where I occasionally get a tiny shred of credit or respect. Or at least feel like it's not an enormous gamble. Lately I just feel like working for something I'm not sure will ever pay off. That goes for both the macro- will I get a faculty position?- and the micro- the day to day, okay I just spent a week on this experiment and will it work or was it a total waste of time and effort?

Granted, I don't need a huge salary to be happy, or I wouldn't have gone this route in the first place. I'd like to be able to buy a house someday, but it doesn't have to be a mansion in the most expensive city. And in the last few years I've decided I do want some job security, which doesn't mean I have to or want to stay in the same place for 25 years, but I would like to know that I have options... and I definitely have plenty of those. Just maybe not in the right locations. So in that sense, having a PhD does give some measure of job security, since it's something you can take with you wherever you go.

Sometimes I do wonder what it would be like to just quit, walk away. I think it would be a big waste. I've already suffered a lot, I have to say, and it would all have been pointless if I gave up now.

Honestly, some days I'm only doing it for all these other female scientists who were smarter than me, who quit just because they weren't strong enough to keep going. It really does wear you down. I keep thinking that even if I'm not that good at research, at least I'm persistent and I have a good work ethic. And I can put up with a lot of crap if I know it's finite and going to be worthwhile.

Ha ha ha, it's those last two things that really get you in the end...

I don't know... this week I'm feeling pretty unenthused about my experiments. It would be nice to get some feedback once in a while. It's not like I'm getting showered with interesting emails now that my paper is on the web. People probably just think I'm nuts, or that it's complete crap. I'd definitely prefer if it's the former.

I'm trying to work on this grant, by myself, and it would be nice if there were anyone on the planet who thought about this same stuff and would talk about it with me. That's the bad thing about being independent and working on something that's entirely your own crazy idea- it gets lonely.

And then you feel like, well if nobody's noticing I'm doing this stuff, aren't I the proverbial tree in the forest? I'm not helping cancer patients, I'm just doing this esoteric stuff... and so what? Is that my big contribution?

Makes me want to go work in a soup kitchen.

But I'm probably just in data withdrawal. It has been so long since I've had something new work that actually gave me some insight into what I'm studying. I found a couple of papers yesterday that are interesting and relevant, but there are still too many black boxes. And doing the experiments to fill them in takes a really long time. Sometimes I just wish I could make time go faster.

I'm hoping that tomorrow I'll have stuff to analyze, because I haven't planned my next experiment yet. I guess I'm hoping the stuff I'm doing now will be really inspiring. I don't know where else to get the motivation. At least with science you can always get your feedback from the data, if not from your colleagues. If I can't get my own personal cheerleading section, I could at least use some verification of my hypotheses right about now.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Harry Potter Is Not That Great

I'm trying to tell myself I'm not missing anything, being here writing a grant instead of at home, reading.

So far it's not working.

So I had another one of those chats yesterday, you know the one where I mention to an older female professor (she'd probably resent being called older, but she's a bit older than I am) that I'm applying for jobs. They all think they know, but they all say different things. She said all that matters is where you went to school, who you worked for, and what you work on. She says if they haven't heard of any of those three things, you're out of the top pile within seconds.

So, pedigree matters. Like this is news. I went to decent schools. And it's a bit late for me to worry about working for someone Famous Enough.

Okay, fine, so I sent her my CV, and she said it looks "weird" and can I please send her the Word file so she can change it around. (Keep in mind, everyone else seems to think it looks good.) I said no, she should just tell me what's wrong with it. I hate people who "teach" by doing it for you! And perhaps more to the point, how to weight someone's opinion? This woman got her job because the university wanted to hire her husband (yes, most of the women of her generation got hired that way... but not my advisor, I'm proud to say). So I'm thinking her CV wasn't what got her hired. But supposedly she has been on some search committees, so maybe she knows something useful.

She also said pictures are the norm now in research plan statements, while the woman I met with a couple weeks ago said pictures are distracting and make you look like you're trying to compensate for inadequacies with fluff.

I guess everyone is going for the fluffy look. Lord knows we're all being told how inadequate we are.

Speaking of, last night I had dinner with a friend who is younger than me, with a degree in chemistry and a new job she's about to start at a Big Pharma. She'll be making TONS of money, and she's looking at buying houses. I'm not sure which irks me more: that she's leaving me, or that she already has exactly the kind of job she set out to get.

This has been one of those weeks, I've been wondering what exactly I think I'm doing all this for. Is being a professor going to make me Happy?

Anyway... my advisor just popped in here with a printout of an article from the New York Times about Lance Armstrong. I love my advisor, but sometimes I have to wonder if I'll have that much free time when I'm a PI. Anyway now I have to go read that... it's not Harry Potter, but it's better than editing my own unintelligible gibberish.


Friday, July 22, 2005

Party's over, and, poison can be good for you !

So the good news is, my cloning seems to be working. Way more colonies on the ligation with insert than with vector alone. Hopefully I'll get what I expect from my digests tomorrow. And more to the point, hopefully this bodes well, superstitiously, that our experiments will have a decent chance of working in this building in general. You never know if the air or water is going to be helpful or hurtful in a new building until you actually start working there.

Party's over

Lab meeting/party was more or less the usual. All the guys, plus me, had beer. Most of the asian people had no alcohol, and the rest of the girls had white wine. (White wine??? Why bother unless it's with salad or dessert?). I ate too much (hard to resist hand-made dumplings and sesame balls!), and ended up talking to our administrative assistant about politics, cancer predisposition, and a few other random things. Turns out she's two degrees of separation away from both Mother Teresa and Bill Clinton! Pretty amazing.

Since then I've been sitting around trying to work on my grant this afternoon. It's the calm before the hordes of people start moving into the other labs on this floor. Next week.... ugh.

But, it's really nice out, and I'm really sleepy. Mostly I think my own stuff is boring, since I started reading about hormesis.

A little bit of a good thing can be worse than a lot!

Hormesis is the coolest thing I've read about in a long time. Here are some links:

Introduction to Radiation Hormesis
Hormesis makes a comeback

So essential the idea is, the dose makes the drug. Turns out there are some things that are really good for you, but at very low doses, can actually be bad. And vice versa. I'm not sure which is cooler! The idea that tiny amounts of something can sneak in and actually get away with doing bad stuff in small numbers, but can't get away with it in a crowd? Or the idea that poison, in very small doses, really does make you stronger.

I think one of the coolest things about this, scientifically, is that there are data from all different systems. It works in plants, and yeast, and mice, and people. That's the kind of stuff I like the best.

It's interesting as much because of the science as the politics. It was originally introduced almost 100 years ago, but lost credibility because the people who proposed it were also proponents of the dreaded homeopathy. Homeopathy, I learned today, uses lower doses than most of the hormesis studies. And hormesis studies use lower doses than are normally tested in drug trials.

Basically, we've only been testing whopping amounts of drugs in most toxicology studies. You know those inserts you get with prescription drugs? If you read the fine print, they're usually looking at grams per kilogram of rat body weight (of course they usually only do these studies in rats, which are actually not very much like humans). Grams per kilogram of body weight is a HUGE amount.

And a huge amount of something taken in only a small number of doses is a lot different than the same amount taken over many many years. And those are both different from a much smaller amount taken in through the environment. This applies to radiation, cadmium, and lots of other naturally-occuring things we also use for medicine.

Anyway I'm not a toxicologist, but this was right up my alley. And I'm always amused when a hypothesis that was probably correct all along gets rediscovered, because it means the truth will always come out, no matter how much politics gets in the way of scientific progress.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Hitting a moving target

So my not-too-ambitious goal today was to finish making this plasmid I need. Yesterday I fired up the first waterbaths in the lab. Today I had to find the ethidium bromide, nevermind where to dispose of anything that had touched it. I had to put the UV box in the dark room on a cart, because the tables haven't been installed yet. And so on. Got to help sort mysterious random bits of old, broken equipment, most of which probably should have been thrown out years ago. Witnessed the excavation- and disposal of- an ancient PCR machine. Ahh, brings me back to my roots!

But I still think it's more fun sorting other people old lab junk than your own.

My advisor happened to walk in as I was plating my transformation and commented that we're technically not supposed to use flame in this building. And here I was so happy that the gas and vacuum lines are working! I'm guessing someone realized, too late, that the bunsen burners are positioned exactly under the wooden shelves over each bench! I'm not kidding. I previously worked in a building where all the bunsen burners were positioned exactly under the electrical sockets, so I'm not sure which is worse!

Meanwhile, we had our first casualty of the move: someone hurt their ankle rolling cabinets around. Everything has wheels right now- I got to watch the shaker do a little belly-dance when I turned it on. Kinda cute. I was just glad it didn't magically dance down the hallway!

We've been told to start wearing our university ID badges all the time, which makes me feel like an inmate. I can't remember the last time, if ever, that I had to wear a badge all day, every day. Jury duty?

Tomorrow we're supposed to have a Lab Warming Party, or something to that effect. I'm guessing I shouldn't plan on getting much of anything done, since there will be alcohol.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Fumbling toward Friday

So, I don't know if I'm being hypersensitive or if it's just a coincidence, but I swear my advisor disagrees with everything i say now. I haven't said anything particularly important to her lately, but any little thing I suggest- in journal club, links to databases that I think are cool, etc. meets with a brush-off. I don't like the feeling that all of my ideas are suddenly bad. It seems just as arbitrary as how she loved everything I said until just a month or two ago. I hate that I even notice stuff like this.

Meanwhile, all the administrative nightmare I predicted with the lab move is coming to pass. At least, I hope it will eventually pass. I won't go into details, but suffice it to say that I'm spending a lot of time calling people who are mostly out of town, because it's the summer, and then getting calls back about who is doing their work while they're off in Hawaii, or whatever.

So after we were told not to come in the last two days, I got some semi-b.s. from our remaining lab manager about where I've been the last couple of days. Apparently we were supposed to know to come in and help unpack, even though nobody planned where anything should go, a large percentage of our stuff just won't fit, and oh yeah, THEY TOLD US NOT TO COME IN. I just grinned and said I was at home working on my grant. But I realized later I could have been more forceful about driving it home that reading papers at home is my job, and organizing the pipette tips is not my job . I'll have to remember to mention that if she brings up something like that again.

Was on my way to meet with collaborators when I got caught in a sudden downpour. It ended up being the perfect excuse to go home instead. I feel responsible- I just washed my car. And it explains the horrendous migraine I had last night- I'm the human barometer.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

What Female Friends Say About You

So I have this friend who doesn't have that many other female friends. Actually, I have more than one female friend for whom I'm possibly the only female friend. Now, I never thought much of that because we're all scientists, these are people I met in grad school, which was the one time in my life when I had more than a handful of close female friends. But a guy she went out with recently made some comment about her lack of female friends is a 'bad sign'. I'm not sure of what. Lack of free time? Lack of interest in knitting?

Then today I was watching Judging Amy (yes, I am still trying to Relax), and noticed that none of the female characters on the show have friends other than family members.

Is this part of the Bitch mythology? That professional women don't have time for friends? Or that we can't relate to each other-?

My thought for the day is to go give your girlfriend a hug. Commiserate. Find something not-too-girly to do together.


Monday, July 18, 2005

Relaxing is hard

I'm feeling really anxious today, I'm not sure why. I think it has to do with not being able to get much work done. I skipped coffee this morning since I think caffeine tends to make me more anxious, but now I'm wondering if I have that backwards?

So I'm off to yoga tonight, and I think part of the problem is knowing I have to be there at a certain time. When I get stressed out, having commitments makes it worse. Anyway this is exactly the wrong mood to be in for a pretty intense yoga class, although I'm sure I'll be too tired afterwards to care about anything but the necessities: eating, showering, and sleeping.

I think the idea that relaxing makes it easier to go back to work is a misconception. I think some of us are wound so tight all of the time, and we have to be wound up to keep getting out of bed every day. Relaxing lets in that creeping sensation that maybe what we do doesn't really matter, since after all the world isn't coming to an end just because we took a couple of days off. But then we're faced with that existential question: if it doesn't matter, why bother at all? Therein lies the ultimate laziness. Unfortunately by the time I reach that stage, I have to go back to work. And then I resent the combination of stress and doubt about whether anybody notices that I'm working hard or whether, perhaps, I'm not really working hard enough.

The Value of Criticism

I consider criticism merely a preliminary excitement, a statement of things a writer has to clear up in his own head sometime or other, probably antecedent to writing; of no value unless it come to fruit in the created work later.

Ezra Pound

I'm not sure I completely understand this quote, but this seemed like the sort of topic that should start with a quote. I think it means you should put your money where your mouth is.

As per a couple of comments I've received from a handful of cowardly, anonymous people: I find it interesting that I can't take criticism just because I choose to delete derogatory comments, only very occasionally, from my site.

As I've said before, isn't that the whole point of virtual reality? Having a little more control, and an alter-ego?

I'm not an anthropologist, I just play one on the internet. So your responses have been very interesting to me. I find it funny that you complain about what I delete, and then you make references to what you think I'm like in the Real World. I can turn that around on you. See, in the Real World, qualified scientific editors would throw out irrelevant, destructive criticisms rather than forwarding them on to the authors of a scientific paper. They might even send the paper out to a different reviewer altogether. Similarly, badly written or illogical papers never go out for review at all. In contrast, thoughtful letters to the editor are usually published where everyone can see them.

Sometimes, in blog-world, it's better to just leave the stupid posts up there, to embarrass the person who submitted them. Sometimes I've thought the posts embarrassed everyone and wasted space, so I got rid of them. I thought, "If I were someone who had never been to this site and I read that post, I would think the people who read this blog are all idiots." I'll let you embarrass yourself up to a point. But I'm less worried about what it says about me than what it says about you.

Having said all that, you're extrapolating, based on absolutely no data and faulty logic, if you propose that anything I do here is related in any way to what kind of faculty member I would make. And since it's not a falsifiable hypothesis, it's about as scientific as people who think that praying for strangers helps heal the world.


Friday, July 15, 2005

Finally Friday

Having waited all week for the weekend, today felt infinitely long. I was able to work in 30-minute stints here and there. But I guess I'm distracted because it's quiet, I haven't had any interruptions, and I still can't focus.

Just found out our lab manager quit, in the middle of the moving. I'm torn about whether this is good or bad, probably both. Definitely good for her, she got an industry job.

So there's no cafeteria in our new building, and still no toilet paper on our floor. Nice. Why would we need things like that to get through a workday?

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Mass hysteria!

Okay, so I am writing from my boyfriend's lab, where I am camped out trying to finish this trivial little cloning project I started earlier this week. I'm doing this here because my thoughtful, considerate labmates didn't actually have a plan or a schedule for packing, so even thought a few of us had experiments planned up until tomorrow, they started packing the agarose gel boxes, etc. right out from under us.

I think they figured out that if they were packing, they could have a respectable excuse not to be doing any other kind of work. So then the frenzy started.... et voila! Mass hysteria. It's funny how stress is catching when there are 10+ people running around with scissors, bubble wrap and packing tape.

Worse than that, the company that came to move our buffers took EVERYTHING off our benches. This happened literally while my back was turned- I was there in the morning, went to drop off DNA for sequencing, and when I came back, all my buffers were gone. Now, my current (soon to be ex!) benchmate is NOT a very considerate person, although she's very sweet. She's the same one who left a package of mine sitting on my bench at room temperature whille I was out of town. It needed to go in the freezer. You know the type.

Anyway so after my buffers disappeared, I turned to her and said, "Did you know they were doing this?" And she said, "Oh, yes" in that befuddled, "Gee-I-never-thought-to-say-anything" kind of way that she has. Well somehow I missed the memo, probably because there was only one and it didn't contain any warnings like: BEWARE, YOUR STUFF WILL BE GONE IF YOU DON'T MARK IT OTHERWISE. This is what I would have written, but I guess I'm used to a certain level of communication where INFORMATION is ACTUALLY EXCHANGED.

So I had a mini-meltdown and went to see my advisor, who is not feeling well, but she was no help. She was overwhelmed with moving budget stuff around and said the lab manager should know everything, but the lab manager wasn't there (not being there when the moving kicks into full swing... not good).

Instead my poor student had to help me move a carfull of boxes, and then I sent her home early because I just didn't want to deal with trying to come up with things for her to do. This whole moving experience has made me worry she's either a little too timid or not quite smart enough to really be a self-starter, but I keep hoping she'll catch on if I just wait, what, a little longer? I keep wondering how she's ever going to make it into/through med school if she doesn't start to be a little more proactive. This is where I'm torn. I could a) tell her to take a hike and find another lab, and get myself a new student, b) stick it out for a year and try to be Super-Mentor-Woman who subtly helps her work on the areas where she's weakest without ever hinting that I think she's slow, or c) give her a stern lecture, and then write an honest recommendation letter when the time comes, no matter what happens. Or some combination of these. This is all new to me, so I probably should go read some books on being a mentor, or whatever.

I'm here at my boyfriend's desk, waiting for my transformation to incubate so I can go home and ice my feet, which are killing me. The people here are really nutty. The lab manager talks to herself incessantly. I talk to myself a lot in lab, or at least I used to, but people gave me a hard time about it in my last lab so I think I do it less now. This girl is 10x worse than I ever was. Then one of the techs is singing random snatches of songs all day, which sounds really endearing, but it's kind of distracting if you're not used to it. My friend who committed suicide used to do that, too, so it just reminds me of him, which is still a bittersweet thing. Plus it's exactly the kind of thing no one in my current lab would ever do. I don't know, this lab feels like it has more younger people. Maybe just nuttier in a different kind of crazy than my lab.

My boyfriend, meanwhile, just left for the equivalent of the company softball game, so I probably should whip out my laptop and work on my grant, or something. I'm inclined to surf the web or go looking for some of my other friends who work over here 24-7. That is one thing my current lab doesn't have: after-hours culture. Most people just go home, and the ones who stay late are not the friendliest ones. I really enjoyed having people around when I worked late in grad school, because it wasn't crowded, but you weren't completely isolated, either.


Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The eye of the storm

So I'm in the new building now. I'm the only person here on the whole floor. It's quiet. Most of it is empty.

Just the way I like it.

Everything smells new, my desk is clean since I've only moved about half my stuff, and my wireless internet connection is faster than it was in the old building. For now, anyway.

So, that's all good. I'm just very happy to have a place to escape to while the lab is in a total frenzy. I'm talking total chaos, boxes everywhere. My benchmate, who knows I'm still finishing up some cloning (!), packed the pipettes without asking me first. Nice! She's a sweet kid, but a little thoughtless. I'm glad I won't be sharing with her anymore after the move.

One of the best things about being here is it's actually the nicest office, with the best view, I've ever had anywhere I've worked. Granted, in college I was spoiled with a desk, a view, and a huge bench all to myself. So even though my bench space is probably going to be too small, for the moment I can daydream a little about My Future Lab and My Office When I'm A Professor.


I am going to sit here and try to get some reading and writing done before the storm catches up with me. I'm sure by tomorrow things will start getting crazy over here, too. But right now, I have an hour before yoga class and I know I need to be a little bit more relaxed if I'm going to get through the First Series.

Moving Pains

Bad enough that we're moving. The security system they installed when they built the new building doesn't work, of course. So, to add insult to injury, they're telling us we have to make a $10 deposit of our own, personal money to get keys to the new lab. I'm not sure if it's $10 per key, since we have separate keys for our tiny, cramped offices, and separate keys to the tissue culture and microscope rooms. Who are they kidding?? What really flabbergasts me is that our Brilliant Leader didn't think to just pay the $10 for each of us herself.

So meanwhile, the storage space in the offices promises to be a fraction of what we have now, nevermind that we're the only lab on the whole floor that's cramming four people in offices that clearly can't fit more than two, plus desks. Similarly, the benches are just a few inches narrower than our old ones, which would be fine if the shelves above them weren't also just a few inches higher. Most people in our lab (including me) are pretty short, so that makes the top shelf pretty much, shall we say, out of reach for storing things we use frequently.

Even my student, who is in her first year of college and her first year in a research lab of any kind, looked around the lab and said, "Boy, whoever designed this place obviously hasn't worked in a lab."

And the list goes on and on.
There's a lot of equipment we've been sharing in our current location that won't exist when we move, so now we're shopping, at t= -7 days and counting, for equipment that can't possibly arrive until weeks after we do. This includes a water filtration system. Our lab manager helpfully suggested we could use regular water and then autoclave it, except that the autoclaves in the building don't work yet .

Anyway I'm trying to look at this all as a learning experience, i.e. what NOT to ignore when you move into a lab space. I'm hoping the next time I do that will be to start my own lab, so hopefully it will eventually pay off to know all this stuff. Or something. Bright side, right?

Friday, July 08, 2005


Our lab is moving in two weeks, so I can't really do any experiments. I'm trying to do some cloning, but as usual I'm having every problem in the book. The latest was a suspicious band in my water that exactly matches the size I'm expecting in my PCR. I'm waiting for the PCR with fresh water now.

So lab stuff is up in the air. I'm trying to work on a grant, but I really feel like I need more preliminary data to even know what to write for some of the aims that are kind of nebulous right now. But grants are always up in the air until they are actually funded.

I'm also working on my job search. I'm seriously considering applying to University of Nebraska, but I haven't told my boyfriend that yet. I figure it's only an issue if they offer me an interview. The other places that are advertising now are more likely locations and he knows about those. I also figure I have less of a real chance of getting an offer from those places, so again it's only an issue if I get offered an interview.

I emailed a couple of friends of mine, who work next door to each other, in a department connected to one that is advertising. They both have joint appointments in the department I would be applying to, so they know about it. Interestingly, the guy gave me pretty pointless, vague answers to my very specific questions. The woman was very straightforward, said she thought her department is better, especially for younger PIs, and that her chair is better. So she said I should apply and see for myself, but she wouldn't want to work there!

It really pays to ask the right people.

Meanwhile, I asked another friend, a senior professor who doesn't work in my field, for some advice on the job search. She is the first person who has said honestly that the people who get the jobs are the ones who are so well-known already that their names are "come up" during the search committee's discussions, and they are actually invited to apply. She said, "nobody gets a job by answering an advertisement".

Now, this is what I always suspected was going on, but scientists are so hypocritical about it, nobody I've asked until now has been willing to admit this is how it actually works.

So I'm meeting with this woman tonight to get the scoop on how you get to be one of these invited interviewees, and how you find out about openings before the advertisements go out. It really is like getting an apartment in Manhattan.

Meanwhile, I'm waiting for my PCR and feeling very unsettled about everything. Reading Science and Nature just isn't going to do it for me this afternoon. I read this article about a young, hot star who has, just coincidentally, worked in my two, very obscure fields, and got a job at my dream university. He has about 3 times as many papers as I do, but they all seem to be reviews, from what I can tell.

My advisor says I can't write any reviews until I'm more famous. This seems wrong to me, since I wrote two as a (not famous) graduate student, but suffice it to say, she won't be any help on that front.

So we are back at the catch-22: can't get a grant without a job, can't get a job without a grant.

Can't get an interview until I'm famous, can't write a review until I'm famous.
Have to be superhuman to be famous, apparently. Or at least, be able to get some basic cloning to work.

Needless to say, I'm thinking I might go to the gym this afternoon. At least there I can be insignificant and nobody really expects me to be otherwise, especially me.