Monday, December 26, 2005

Post-traumatic thesis stress

So, I went to lab for a few hours today, and it was actually not all bad. In fact, I seem to have a reproducible result, which is a huge relief. Of course I can't be sure it's linked to the thing I'm studying, but it is proof that I'm not completely incapable of repeating an experiment.


Unfortunately, I'm curled up with a shot of Jack Daniels and a box of chocolates, because I stupidly agreed to help a friend revise her thesis. Actually the chocolates were a Christmas present that I've been trying to avoid opening for several days, but this seemed like a good occasion to give in to temptation.

Now, I may have mentioned previously that I was my thesis advisor's only student, and that my advisor was not around when I was writing my thesis. I spent several months trying to figure out what to write, and how to write it. It was really traumatic and definitely character-building.

I had the advantage, however, of having published a few papers already. So it could have been a lot worse. I also had unlimited time, since my committee obviously couldn't let me schedule my defense until we figured out where my advisor had gone! Ha ha! It's almost funny now!


My friend is not so lucky. She is using the thesis as an excuse to write up all of her unpublished data, but she has no experience with this. It's a hard time to learn about organization, references, and oh yeah, questioning assumptions.

And did I mention that she's a world-class procrastinator, so she has only a week left?

I'm kind of horrified to have to say this, because my friend is bright and hard working. But. This girl would have fried in the wok of hell that I went through.

I'm worried she's going to find out the hard way when she sends her paper out for review. I'm equally worried that the paper will just sail through review, which it really shouldn't if peer review actually works.

She'll find out the hard way, eventually. But she's not there yet. Whatever her advisor or former postdocs in her lab say or do, she takes it as the gospel. And I suspect her thesis committee will, too. It's disgusting and unscientific, but it's true.

Her advisor is respected in his field, which is to say, he would not survive if he tried to make it in mine- if he were a postdoc starting out now. Controls that would be considered absolutely necessary in my field are apparently optional in theirs. I was told that the thesis is the one document that should be written in first person, but her advisor refuses to let her write in anything but the most convoluted, passive voice. And so on. Our fields are close enough, however, that all the missing experiments are glaringly obvious to me, and it's very upsetting to see this going on right under my nose and know that there's very little I can do about it beyond make some feeble suggestions about how she should, um, consider discussing some of her results and the potential limitations of how they could be interpreted. I can't see how I can do much else without further compromising my own career.

Hence the Jack Daniels. Jack got me through all the miserable, political, degrading subjective crap I experienced in grad school, and I'm vicariously reliving the unfairness of it all by helping my friend out, but from the opposite angle: my friend is the enemy. She's one of the ones who gets to slip through the system, unquestioned. She doesn't have to work as hard as I did, or know her stuff inside and out and backwards. And it makes me angry.

But I feel guilty about being, well, a little bit disgusted, because I really do like her and I think she has a lot of potential. And I'm not sure it's a good thing that I had my potential, shall we say, galvanized, by what I went through. I'm not saying everyone should have to go through that! But they shouldn't get to float through on a bed of cotton candy, either.

In a way it's nice to reconfirm everything I've learned along the way. But this is the perfect example of a lab that runs precisely the wrong way: the complete lack of training, the royal oblivion of the well-named PI and the field that obediently follows in the footsteps of years of untested assumptions.

Goody. And a stack of thesis pages left to go.

I guess I'm thinking about it even more because I read an interesting essay this morning about how to do meaningful research. One of the things this guy said that really pissed me off is that it's more important to be a great scientist than to get involved in fixing the system. I think this is precisely the kind of shortsightedness that has led to the mess American science is in now. So I guess if I were really worried only about my science, I wouldn't have agreed to read this thing for my friend, and I wouldn't be in the emotional and philosophical angst that I am now.

One of my best friends still has thesis nightmares, years later. She gets a phone call from the administrative head of our program, saying that they need more data or another paper and until they get it, she can't graduate. She wakes up sweating and breathless every time. She definitely has impostor syndrome. She still feels like she escaped out a back door at midnight with a stolen, blank diploma and just wrote her name in the slot.

I'm happy to say I don't actually have that kind of nightmare. There is no question in my mind - especially today - that I more than earned my diploma.

Say it with me now, postdocs: I already have my PhD. I made it through. You may have to go and look at your diploma, or your bound copy of the final, signed document, to prove it to yourself. YOU ARE DONE.

And now, onto the next challenge.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

who's going to hell today?

anonymous peer reviewers, administrators
Circle I Limbo

Elsevier, Faculty of 1000
Circle II Whirling in a Dark & Stormy Wind

Circle III Mud, Rain, Cold, Hail & Snow

educational testing service (ETS) in princeton, NJ
Circle IV Rolling Weights

sexist pricks, homophobes
Circle V Stuck in Mud, Mangled

River Styx

CNN, Creationists
Circle VI Buried for Eternity

River Phlegyas

anti-abortionists, evangelists
Circle VII Burning Sands

The Pope
Circle IIX Immersed in Excrement

racists, George Bush
Circle IX Frozen in Ice

Design your own hell

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Pseudo-feminist progress?

Got a phone call very early this morning from a different time zone, so I'm up drinking coffee and trying to watch the news.

While flipping stations (there's not much news on), I found the WWE on USA. The opening act was a bunch of women in skimpy outfits wrestling each other in front of hundreds of screaming US troops. Actually I'm wondering if this is an old tape, since it's in Afghanistan, but what do I know.

Anyway I was watching this totally degrading, ridiculous performance and thinking, well, on the one hand these women are fighting each other, not stripping. So it could be worse. And I've always been a 'live and let live' kind of person when it comes to things like stripping, which I know some college students choose to do just because it pays so well. I just think it's a sad statement on our society that it pays better than say, working in a research lab. But on the other hand, I was thinking about how maybe women aren't making more progress because we allow each other to act like assholes.

Other minority groups have made significant progress by banding together and coming up with nasty names for members who cavorted with the enemy, e.g. calling someone an oreo is not considered a compliment. I'm not saying I agree with segregation of any kind, because I don't. But maybe if we really want women to be viewed with respect, we need to police ourselves a little.

So does anybody have some funny, derogatory names we can use for women who propagate these degrading stereotypes? I can't think of anything. What would we call these people? Calling someone a slut or a bimbo doesn't accomplish anything, and doesn't carry the connotation that indicates what it's for.

I was thinking about this because I heard a really offensive ad on tv last night, by one of these companies that specializes in selling diamonds. They were saying they're not a regular jewelry store, they want to work with couples in love, blah blah blah. Then they said, and I'm not making this up, "We'll find the engagement ring that she loves, that he can afford."


Anyway, as much as I complain about work, yesterday was kind of fun. Mostly because I think one of my experiments might have actually worked. It will be a while before I know for sure. But I'll take staring at a microscope any day over, well, being a WWE wrestler.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

In anticipation of New Year's

So I was thinking about it being 2006 because we were talking about astrology today in lab. And also because I was labeling tubes and wondering if I'll keep forgetting to write 06 on everything next month, like I always do.

This year has pretty much sucked for me, career-wise. My personal life has improved, but since this isn't a blog about my personal life, you never hear about that.

But this year started with my getting food poisoning on January 1st. It was really awful and I probably would have died if I'd been alone, because I didn't have the energy to force down alka seltzer (aspirin for the fever, and liquids for the dehydration), much less call 911 and explain what was wrong with me or where I lived, etc.

Thanks to my boyfriend, I was mostly recovered two days later. But the older I get, the more I think these things tend to come in groups. You know, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Once one has landed on your head, you can't help expecting the other one. And it did. In fact, most of the year felt about as good as being repeatedly kicked in the head.

So anyway I am hopeful that next year will be better. It has the potential for extremes: either much better, or potentially much worse, than this year. Which is always a scary prospect. I'm not a gambler. I would be very happy with a gradual improvement, instead of this crazy extreme up (I have a thesis project that's actually working!) and down (all hell breaks loose in my thesis lab)... cut to a few years later and it's still up (might get High Impact Paper for incredibly cool story!) and down (I give up, go to more obscure journal just to get it over with)... and up (might get a job) and down (might be unemployed and eventually homeless)...

Small initial superiority

I was following links from people who had commented here in the past, and wound up reading an excerpt from the Chronicle of Higher Education on this site :

Meanwhile, academics reflected on research by the late Robert K. Merton (a notable mentor himself) and his students on the accumulation of advantage in science, the idea that a small initial superiority can be multiplied over time. A strong undergraduate degree leads to acceptance in a leading Ph.D. program with superior teachers and facilities, qualifying students for positions that help them compete for grants, which in turn make award-winning research possible. Merton called this process the Matthew Effect, citing Matthew 13:12: "For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance."
Harriet Zuckerman's 1977 book on the scientific elite and American Nobel
laureates had shown how crucial the system of graduate supervision had been; more than half of America's Nobel laureates by the year 1972 had been students, postdoctoral fellows, or junior collaborators with older laureates, and many others had worked with major nonlaureates. For higher education as for business, the lesson seemed to be that mentoring had helped maintain male dominance.

Whew. I'm not sure that a leading PhD program with superior teachers matters that much, but it could apply to being in a better lab with a better mentor, who has more connections and will publicize your work, etc.

As a friend said to me the other day, "It's not who you know, it's who knows you."

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I hate the Schrodinger's Cat aspect of sending these stupid applications out.

Again, it's the middle of the week, so I got 2 more rejection letters today. One was pretty nice. They basically said it's not me or my qualifications, it's just that my work doesn't fit with what their department needs right now in terms of specialties, and they sincerely wish me the best of luck in my search, or whatever. The other was just basically a generic 'you didn't make the cut' letter.

I have some time now so I should do a couple more applications, but on reading that first letter, I'm wondering again if I could do a better job of selling myself and my research. I'm worried people think my project not useful or important. Or maybe the connection with disease isn't obvious enough, which is always a risk for us basic scientists.

I had more discouraging news yesterday, talking to a distant contact about job searches going on in a few departments I thought I was interested in. Basically the guy was very helpful, but he said they are looking for very specific things, even though the actual job ads don't specifically say so. On the one hand, I'm glad I asked, and it will save me the work of finding out the hard way, but there's nothing like being told, "Uh, yeah. Don't bother."

So I'm not really in a frame of mind to write a PR statement for my research right now, and not just because of the mail. The weather has turned crappy all of sudden, and my experiments thus far today haven't been too encouraging. Here I was hoping to get actual data, but it's just more of the same confusing randomness I've been getting for a while now...

When I get my gels running, I can go to the gym, which might help improve my mood. Not that I really want to go out, or exercise, in this weather. I want to go back to bed.


On a more positive note, I spent some time last night reading about Design of Experiments, or DOE. Some pretty cool stuff. I'm hoping it can help me think about my stuff differently, although at the moment I'm not sure it will change anything about my actual experimental setup, since I already use most of these principles. I was surprised to hear it had a name and that there are tons of books written about this method of applying statistical principles to collecting data, rather than only using statistics for analysis. It got me excited again about possibly doing the math/compsci thing, although I suspect this is not the sort of thing they teach at the workshops we were considering. I probably should check on that...

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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

My competitive field, or MTA issues

Thanks for all the support, those of you who signed your names.

Re: MTAs on a previous post, I'm not sure how an MTA would have helped me there. I have no problem with them using my reagent, since it's published. That is why I'm in academia- I'm more interested in the progress than the fame. And there's no money involved. I won't talk about it here, but I don't believe in patenting, to be honest. Not in science. Besides, they have given me reagents in the past, too. And they were in a rush. I would have had to make the decision to impede their research- or force them to go to someone else- by choosing to do an MTA.

I have no problem with them using someone else's reagent to do the same thing. Maybe mine really wouldn't work for their application. I just don't particularly like that competitor, but whatever. I can't stop this person from working in my field, and I'm not sure I even need to worry about it. It's just a knee-jerk paranoia.

re: competition in my field, YES. I was looking on Google images the other day to see if it had crawled my thesis advisor's page and some of his really nice figures (it hadn't). But I found one from the competitor I've been talking about, and it had a picture of one of his students, and under it said "Member of the (name) Army."

Boy, talk about the Art of War!

Lately I'm thinking I'm actually in a good position. Right now most people in my field think I'm absolutely crazy, and they don't believe my published story. (Although I do have some supporters, and I'm not worried about them scooping me).

So I can probably work on the next chapter of the mystery in relative peace and quiet, since I don't think anyone is going to touch it with a ten-foot pole. I'm hoping that will actually give me an advantage: time to figure out what is going on. I think it's a hard enough problem that nobody's going to solve it overnight, even if I'm totally wrong about what's going on!

I hope I'm not totally wrong.

Anyway, re: the MTA issue, what pissed me off was their complete lack of communication on the issue, and my not knowing what they're going to say to other people about my reagent, and therefore, my science. And my lack of options to do anything about it besides trying to send them an email to clarify that I stand by my published observations, which they reproduced but don't believe. Aside: I assume this is because they haven't done all the right controls, or haven't seen all of mine (some of which didn't make it into the paper... which also still pisses me off).

I think the point I'm taking from this is that if those people ask me for a reagent again, I should make them do an MTA. Can I put a clause in there that they have to tell me if it doesn't work, or that they have to use my protocol?? I'm guessing that wouldn't be a common request, but what do I know? Maybe it's common to insist that if it doesn't work, the user isn't allowed to tell anyone else??? Is that what these things are for?? That's a frightening thought.


Anyway I'm just tired of people choosing to read what they want into my posts.

I am definitely not the sort of person who goes around saying how perfect I am and how stupid everybody else is.

Just because I get mad at somebody for doing something stupid doesn't mean I think they're all-around idiots.
I just think they did something stupid on that particular day. Everybody does that. Even me!

Perhaps it was stupid of me to think everyone who reads my blog would understand that.

Similarly, I think people who hate research but stay in it for the wrong reasons are making a bad decision, but they might be perfectly intelligent, nice people.

Or, like someone who shall remain Anonymous, they might not.

Monday, December 19, 2005

May you live in interesting times

To the Anonymous Commenters, I find it telling that you don't want to include your name. Perhaps you've been here before and had your wrist slapped. Or perhaps you haven't read many of my other blogs? Or perhaps Botanical Girl is a bit biased, since I'm always better at cheering other people up. I can be optimistic, really I can. Just not so much about my own life.

So I'm going through a crappy, whiny time right now. I think everyone has these sometimes, and anyone who has been through and academic job search agrees that it's justified. One of my friends who has a job now actually told me she spent most of the month of December crying - and then ended up getting a job just a few months later.

So yeah, to quote Fiona Apple, "I am likely to miss the main event/ If I stop to cry and complain again"

I was brought up not to feel too sorry for myself. Something to be said for my family's approach: just get over it.

That said, I haven't got a lot of good stuff to say lately. Here's something: we had a lab holiday party today- who didn't, really? Lots of good food and we played secret santa. So that was kinda fun.

But the holiday season is hard. I don't follow any kind of organized religion, and don't want to. I'm not into the fanatical capitalism that sends people flocking to the malls this time of year. I get enough of that to suit me, and don't feel the need to go overboard just because it's what- some arbitrary date the Catholic church chose? Give me a break.

So I don't feel like I'm missing out on any of that- and here's where the complaining comes in- I just hate people constantly asking after my well-being, like it's oh so sad that I don't have any big holiday plans.

What they don't understand is that I'm looking forward to spending a few days by myself, just trying to clear my head. This is my favorite, quiet time of year here. Most people go out of town, most things are closed, so there's a lot less traffic and noise in general. It's great.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Don't Check Email On Weekends!

Ugh, I broke my own rule today. I checked my email. I've been trying not to, since work-related emails generally piss me off.

Today I got a reply to an email I probably shouldn't have bothered sending.

A while back, someone requested one of my published reagents. Long story short, I had to scrounge some stuff together that I wasn't 100% sure would work, because it was old and I hadn't used it recently, and really didn't have time to make more for them, yada yada. I sent it with lots of apologies and disclaimers. They were kind of in a rush to get a paper out.

I was excited at the possibility of getting my paper cited, and helping someone out. I figured, it's always good if someone else can use your reagent and validate it. And I knew the reagent was good when I last used it. Very good.

Well of course I never heard from them, so I assumed it didn't work, but I was annoyed that they didn't let me know, so I emailed them to find out. This has happened to me before. People assume the stuff I do is trivial, so when it doesn't work immediately for them, they never ask me for help or consider that they might be doing something wrong!

In this case, it didn't work. It's clear from the email, since I asked, that they didn't understand what they were doing. And of course, they never asked me about it, or even let me know- I wouldn't have known until the paper came out!

Turns out they ended up getting a similar (probably more recently used) reagent from one of my "competitors" (whose reagent hasn't been published, btw).

Nice! Always better to go with the unpublished reagent.... right? NOT.

So now I'm pissed off. They were nice enough about it, but this won't do anything good for my reputation. And since I'm working on my grant update, it's not doing anything for my confidence.

Oh and let me say something about this "competitor". This is someone I had met when I was a grad student, and he was pretty nice at the time- when we were working on totally different things. Later, I asked if he wanted to collaborate, long before I had even started this project, because I had heard he was interested in doing something similar. He flatly refused to even tell me he was working on the same thing, which I knew because I had been told he presented it when he gave his job talks. Did he think it was some kind of secret, or for that matter, a unique idea?

What an asshole.

Ironically enough, I ended up publishing my stuff, and I think he still hasn't published anything. Small comfort since I'm sure his will be a Much Higher Impact Paper when it does come out, because he's got the sort of connections to ensure enough Big Names will be on his paper. And I'm sure people will enthusiastically cite it for that reason, while mine languishes in the One Hit Wonder section of the library.

Ugh. Bad enough to think about this stuff during the week, but I really could have done without it today.

Friday, December 16, 2005

It's Fry Day

So, I'm doing an experiment. I won't know until tomorrow if it worked. I'm hoping it worked, although I will still have to do it again.

This morning I got a potentially encouraging email from one of the places I applied, asking for reference letters. Although at this point I have to admit, I'm not going to get my hopes up just for that little bit of information.

Better than nothing.

I'm emailing people whom I'm sure barely remember me- if at all- and asking if they can help with my job search.

Can they?? Will they?

Worked a little on various bits of writing that need to get done, including revising my Research Plan once again for the latest round of job applications. Ugh. I am so sick of looking at it.

Talked to and fed and petted my cells, hoping they will behave themselves so I can do lots of good experiments next week.

And here I am, back at the computer, wanting to procrastinate. It's late enough that I'd rather go home, or to the gym, but it will save me a full day to stick it out for another couple hours and get this thing to a good stopping point.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Quick funny offensive ad

From an ad in Science titled "Lecturer with Potential for Security of Employment", which is pretty funny already:

All interested parties are encouraged to apply, including minorities and women.


Here's a good one, for contrast:

"... Medical Center is committed to increasing the representation of women and members of minority groups on its faculty, and we particularly encourage applications from such candidates."

Sheesh people, get the wording right!

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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Bumpy hump day.

Got another rejection letter. I think they send them on Wednesdays on purpose.

Anyway so this one was from a school where one of my thesis advisor's competitors works. Think that had anything to do with it???

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Humpety Hump Hump Day

Halfway through the week, and it's a mediocre day.

My friend who's had 2 interviews already got rejected from one of those places, so he's understandably bummed. I was feeling pretty good thinking I hadn't gotten any rejection letters so far this week, but then I got one after lunch. Meanwhile, at least 6 people in my lab asked me questions today about techniques, and I was able to feel confident about my answers to them. So that felt good. So it kinda balances out.

But yesterday kinda sucked. My advisor was in one of her moods. First she was complaining that nobody in her lab likes science enough and that's why they're not productive. She's stressing about grants, hence worrying that she doesn't have enough data (she doesn't). There's no point in trying to tell her they actually all really like science, and that it's her incredible negativity that makes them less productive, and that students and postdocs are much more motivated if they think their stuff will get published, than that it will go into a grant they won't be around to enjoy....

I made a comment about how perhaps getting people to be productive was the same in science as in any other field, and she responded by saying she can make her technicians and her administrative assistant do lots of work, but that you can't manage grad students and postdocs.


I wouldn't know how to begin to explain to her why I think that's ridiculous.

So to try to cheer her up, while simultaneously demonstrating that I had done an experiment she had suggested, I asked her about something I had done this week (that didn't work) and whether she had any other ideas for how to get at the question. But, she was in one of her condescending moods, and proceeded to claim that I needed to do more reading, specifically citing an observation I still can't find in the literature. At all. I think she was mis-remembering, but I will have to keep looking since it would actually be really helpful to me if she's right.

Anyway in the course of the discussion, I realized something. Maybe I'm just getting better at reading people, but I had the strong impression that there were two conversations going on there. One was the words coming out of her mouth, which sounded more or less like advice. The other was something I could hear, a little voice in my head, that was much more negative. I had the impression I could tell how she really felt about my project and my progress, and it wasn't good.

There is a saying in this lab that our advisor likes everyone who is new. She's nice to you for the first year, they say, but after that, beware. Well my year has been up for a few months now, and I think I see why they say that.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Just procrastinating, no deep thoughts

Just got out of lab meeting and have some time to kill before the gym, or whatever is going to distract me tonight besides Medium . Hope it's not a rerun, but too lazy to check.

Had a frustrating, crappy morning, but the afternoon was better. Lunching in sunshine and coffee helped tremendously.

Lab meeting was also pretty interesting. But my advisor's in an unnaturally good mood, which is kind of freaking me out.

Saw somebody had posted a clipped-out article from the NY Times on the wall in our lab, saying that the major stem cell research progress from North Korea might be completely fake. Or maybe just partially. Or maybe all of science is crap and the only reason anybody noticed this time is because this paper got so much attention from the press and the world in general. Basically that was gist of the article.

Oh, and someone sent me something funny today, a 'definition' of a postdoc (beware, this is going to make you fall off your chair laughing):

After earning your PhD, you will probably want to spend a few years in another laboratory to expand your range before accepting a permanent position. Postdoctoral work provides an opportunity to pursue research with the wisdom gained from graduate school and without the administrative responsibilities of more senior scientists. Some postdoctoral fellows are supported from research grants to the host laboratory. Others are awarded fellowships from the National Institutes of Health or private foundations.

here are my snide comments:

want to spend a few years --> have to spend several long painful years

opportunity to pursue research --> you'll be working for some schmuck who will exploit or hate you (or both)

without the administratrive responsibilities --> you'll have no power whatsoever

some postdoctoral fellows are supported from research grants --> the vast majority of people who won't get faculty jobs later are supported from research grants

others are awarded fellowships --> the ones who work for famous people and/or are much smarter than you will get fellowships while you wonder why anyone gave you a PhD if you're so stupid you can't get any funding

Or, my version of this statement:

After escaping from grad school, PhD firmly clutched in your desperate, bloody hands, if you are good enough to get a faculty job someday you'll still have to waste some time in a postdoc. If you are not, this is your last chance to publish the coveted High Profile Paper(s). Postdoctoral work is slightly better than grad school in some ways, and slightly more stressful. Likewise it is slightly better than being a faculty member, but slightly worse (degrees will vary depending on the System). Some postdoctoral fellows will be happier because they'll figure out how to get their own funding, even if it means begging for a phony recommendation letter from someone famous who has never met you. But only slightly happier than the ones who get paid off their PI's R-01. No one will warn you about all the pitfalls of being a postdoc, the crappy health insurance, you don't have the safety net of a committee like you did in grad school, etc. One last piece of advice: don't do one if you can figure out a way to avoid it. If you must do one, make it quick, make it famous, and get out as fast as humanly possible.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Poly Anna's post

Hello All,

It is Saturday morning, my hands are freezing because we have no heat in our house, and I spent most of the morning finishing reading a book, The Wedding of the Two-Headed Woman , by Alice Mattison. I've been totally absorbed by this book this week, rushing home every night and avoiding tv (!) in favor of reading. It's been a while since I stumbled upon a find like this: a writer I enjoy and admire.

So I was pleased to find a very interesting post to a previous blog (two blogs ago). I am going to excerpt a few very intriguing points here, since I found them very thought-provoking.

All successful individuals no matter if they are ego-driven or driven by altruism have had to experience a period of intense self-denial and focused dedication to the point of exhaustion. Great musicians and artists must go into a near mystical state practicing their art to the point of forgetting to eat and sleep, sometimes for long periods and up to a few years with short breaks. Criticism, negativism, and resentment of friends and colleagues mean nothing during this period. The practice of science is no different.

This is interesting... mostly because I feel that I've already been through this stage, and now the job has been reduced somewhat, due to the condition of being in a temporary postdoc position, to just a job. I keep hoping I can go back there, since by nature I am a musician and mystic and would rather have the kind of absorption that makes me close out the rest of the world. Right now the world keeps intruding on that and I don't feel that I have the power (read: money) to do what I need to do to reach that state again. Unfortunately, unlike music or writing, the high in science does require quite a lot of money.

You must have this as highest priority at some level, whether it be the _high_ that comes with insight resulting from the one in one hundred good results, the knowledge that you are the first to uncover this little secret of nature, the acceptance of a manuscript, or a successful effort to reform the system. Ramp to the _high_ that comes with sharing your knowledge and insight, in contributing to the collective betterment of mankind and reform of the system, or reversing a colleagues lack of insight and contributing to their development.

This is also interesting to me. I do enjoy all of these things, but I can't say they are my highest priority. It's not a carrot that works as well as it used to. Maybe some people think that's wrong, that I'm in science for the wrong reasons. But I don't want little, temporary highs. I want a stable, contented life. Living from experiment to experiment is a desperate way of life.

And there was a time when I felt contented enough just having the feeling that I had done some tangible work each day (even if it's not tangible in a physical way to anyone other than me). Sometimes I still have that. But many days I feel like I'm not working hard enough, not checking enough things off my to-do list, to feel contentment with my efforts. I'm not sure if I'm really not working hard enough, or if I just have this neverending to-do list and insanely high expectations for myself. Probably both.

I don't think the way to enlightenment, however, is through making tons of money or having kids. At least, not for me. I also tried yoga, meditation and t'ai chi, but they were temporary highs, like writing. When I am writing, I feel good. I always wanted to be a writer.

But the only thing that really captivates my imagination for any length of time, what wakes me up at night, is puzzling apart the interesting data. Even now, when I'm upset about my experiments, rather than excited by them, that is what I find myself thinking about in between being asleep and actually being awake in the morning. That part when you're in bed with your eyes closed, reviewing your dreams and thinking about where you just were in your sleep, and switching to thinking about where you are in reality. Usually the experiments are the first real thing I think of every day, even today. I woke up thinking about western blots. Sometimes I have a brilliant insight in that moment, but I haven't had any for a while.

So I think the slump I've been in lately is the lack-of-data-slump.

I hate the possibility that I'm addicted to getting data, because I have seen recently where this can lead. My own advisor is a data addict. It is one of the things I adore and admire about her, but I also think it is the source of many of the problems in the lab. She doesn't have an equal addiction for seeing the people in her lab achieve any sense of happiness or contentment with their results and abilities. And I think that's unfortunate, because I still think making people happy is rewarding, however you choose to do it.

I choose to make other scientists happy, to make younger women scientists braver, and that includes me. That's part of why I would rather be in academia than in industry: I think there are more opportunities to understand and change the system, and prevent more women from going through what I've been through. Why should we all have to reinvent the same wheel? But it's hard to feel like that's enough when the experiments aren't working.

Sometimes the best thing I did all day- like what happened this week- is to have a four-hour-long conversation with a grad student about how to handle her advisor and her competitive, insecure male coworker. And then the little devil says, but you can't put that on your CV . And I get another rejection letter in the mail, and I wonder if I should be asking my students to call the schools I'm applying to and tell them what a great mentor I am. Do people actually do that? Would anyone be impressed by that? I think if I were on the committee, I would want to know, but I tend to distrust people who are self-promoting to the extent of wanting extra credit for every good deed they do.

Anyway I am still trying to learn to be contented with working hard, regardless of where the data are, and just try to have a little faith in myself and in the scientific method, that the data will come. I think that is a better plan, in the long run, than bouncing from _high_ to _high_, and being miserable in between.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Nothing is perfect

Not even close.

# rejection letters today: 2

Mood I'm in: not great

# angst-ridden chats I've had with grad students today: 1

# meals I've had time for today: 1 (it's almost 6 pm now)

Outlook: To quote the magic 8-ball, ask again later.

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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Barbie goes to math class

So I've had a lot of random thoughts the last few days, but no time to write them down. Today I've had too much caffeine and I'm feeling kind of jumpy. I'm also in the middle of a book I'm really excited about, so to be honest, I just want to go home and finish reading it!

Anyway. About Barbie. Barbie is me. You'll see what I mean.

My boyfriend has been drifting with regards to his career motivation lately, leaning away from his training in biology and more toward his hobbies: the 'harder' sciences, especially math and computer programming. I've been enjoying hearing about what he's learning, mostly because a lot of it verifies things I've intuited, shall we say, from observing networks and complex systems in biology. That's always gratifying. I'd like to think I have absorbed a lot of math over the years, and although I don't explicitly use, or even remember, most of it, it informs the way I understand biology. And we both firmly believe that math and the use of computers are really where the progress in biology is heading: towards looking at whole systems, at least as much as specific proteins.

So in order to try to encourage my boyfriend to get excited about work again, I suggested that he, or we, attend a workshop. I won't say which one(s) we're looking at, but I looked at the schedules today and just gasped. We still have to apply, and there's no guarantee we'll get to go, but part of me is somewhat phobic about a month, or even just a week, of intensive math and computer programming lectures. Every day. All day. Good god!

So I had to stop and think, because I am quite aware that we grow most when we do things we're afraid of doing. How much of this is leftover terror from bad experiences I had in school, particularly from being the only girl in my math classes much of the time? How much of it is that I'm still a bit burned out after so much school, particularly after having a lot of ugly clashes with the administration in grad school? How much is fear of the actual subject, and how much is insecurity on my part, fear of sexism, and fear that I just don't deal well with authority? Am I afraid I actually won't like the subject? Because it's just a gut reaction, I'm having a hard time parsing it out.

I have the strong impression that if we go to one of these things, I can be certain of being one of the only girls in the class. I've had more formal math training than my boyfriend, but I think he has a lot of untapped talent in that area. He's a linear, logical thinker: I'm not. He's also a self-taught programmer, while I'm starting again to try to learn little bits here and there. His latest attempt to get me excited is Ruby, a language I like so far, with a tutorial I like so far, but I haven't spent nearly enough time on it yet.

Again, I have to wonder if it's a low priority for me because I'm afraid I'm not naturally good at it, or because I know it will be a lot of work, or what. Is it just plain fear? Guilt that I'm doing that instead of reading papers?

Anyway I guess I think I should do stuff purely because I'm scared of it, I'm sure I'll learn something no matter what, and those two reasons should be reason enough. Also, I'm trying to do the math of how much time I have to sort out my own career.

Update on the job search:

So, I found out yesterday that one of the schools that rejected me (summarily, actually) decided to look at only senior people, although the original ads didn't read that way. Okay, fine. But I have to wonder how many other places will be doing the same thing: adding requirements after the fact, and wasting my time.

Today I heard from another place that is lagging way behind when they said they would be doing interviews, and they keep assuring me that they're just slow and I'll hear something soon. My advisor says that means that I'm still on the list but that they can't agree on who should be on the short list. Ugh! I'm not sure that's comforting at all!

So here's how the math goes:

Current funding runs out next summer. Don't expect (or want, really) current advisor to pay me after that.
Expect to hear about grant in late spring. Don't actually expect to get it. Won't have time to apply again before current funding runs out.
Not sure about doing other grant applications right now, am not in good frame of mind (or good stage of data) to 'sell' my current stuff.
Expect to hear, one way or another, about job options some time between now and when I find out about the grant.

You'll notice I don't tend to think of math in terms of numbers. Basically we're talking about 7 months, minus a couple of months, before I will really know for sure that I have used up all my long-term options and am left with only short-term ones (e.g., look for another postdoc or.... something).

Right now I'm thinking I might as well use up the last of my fellowship money on something that scares the crap out of me, like one of these workshops. Why not. But it still scares the crap out of me.

Actually, having written all this and re-read it, I think this is another one of those areas where I have to blame my parents. For reasons I won't go into, my parents gave me no end of terror about my grades in math class. I actually think a lot of this fear comes from that.

Rationally, I know that I won't get a grade for this workshop, that even if I did I wouldn't have to tell my parents at age 30 (!), and that it won't matter if I'm the worst one in the class. But on some gut level, I think I will always associate fear of failure at math with fear the fear that goes like this: I'll never be good enough at anything.
That's the association my parents made, and they communicated it quite clearly to me.

Nevermind that I got A's and B's all through school, and easy A's in college calculus. I almost went on to take more, linear algebra and DiffEQ, and constantly wonder if my interests would have been different if I had gone further with it. But somehow the one good year doesn't outweigh a childhood spent in abject terror of bringing home a bad math grade.

Funny how things look different from farther away. The big, scary experiences always seem to dwarf the good ones, for me at least. So maybe I should view this as a chance to try to tip the scales.

Well, there's my timer. For now, my only math is the simple arithmetic of multitasking.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Money Crunch

So my Fearless Leader sent a rather bizarre email to the entire lab today. It is a Saturday, mind you, and I was still in a pretty good mood- yesterday was decent enough not to wreck it.

This email details the math of how she plans to handle the 20% cut from NIH. Apparently it kicks in as each grant goes into the new funding cycle. I have to give her credit that her grants are staggered by a few months, and she has several, so it won't hit us all at once.

I don't know why I say us. I'm still kind of a satellite member of her lab, but everyone has been really nice to me lately and treating me like I'm actually part of the group.

Anyway, I'm paraphrasing, but the math basically goes like this:

people + stuff = 100% of lab costs

since 100 - 20 =80%, and she doesn't want to cut any people, she has to cut stuff.

Ok, fine. But here's my perception of how the stuff breaks down:

animal costs ($$$)
high-throughput array costs ($$$)
everything else ($)

But her email doesn't distinguish, really, between these things. Granted, I'm using neither animals nor arrays right now, so perhaps she sent personalized budget emails to those people who are using the more expensive systems in the lab??? I certainly hope so.

Isn't it kind of a given that when going gets tough, you find the one thing that costs the most and cut that first? I guess if it were up to me, I'd think hard about getting rid of a postdoc, student, or technician, but in this lab, I don't know whom I would want to get rid of. There is no obvious choice.

Anyway my impression is that she wants people to learn how to share. As I mentioned before, of late there has been a lot of hoarding going on, due inefficient ordering of common lab stocks.

So I will be amused if we actually see any changes in behavior whatsoever, since we actually have a pretty decent, although very clueless bunch of people in our lab. I had a chat the other day with a grad student about the cost of hemacytometers. She seemed to think they were cheap (~$20-30 each). In reality, they each cost ~$90-200 each, depending on where you get them. And our lab has a habit of breaking the matching coverslips at an alarming rate.

This is the kind of thing I learned in high school. The first time I learned to use each piece of equipment, I was told precisely how much I would owe the lab if I broke it.

I'm astounded that kids are coming up through the system without learning the cost of doing research. Sure, I've met people who came from insanely rich labs before, and I wouldn't expect them to have ever ordered anything themselves.

But. Come on, people. If you're not teaching your students the value of your tools, it's your own fault when your lab goes broke. But it's especially sad for those of us who have been trying to plan our experiments so we never waste a drop of anything, to see so much carelessness compromising our work.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Finally, a good day

Ok, so it wasn't perfect, but it was as close to a good day as I have had in quite a while.

First, I got an email regarding one of the places I applied for a job. They received my application and say the committee is meeting this month. I'm taking that as a good sign.

Then, I was catching up on the last few issues of Science and found a few more job ads that seemed quite relevant to me, so I did 3 more applications today. Good for me!

I also got an email in response to one of those friend-of-a-friend queries to try to find out something about one of my applications, and while the person wasn't terribly knowledgable, the gist of the message was that the department is doing a lot of hiring. Which is always good.

And (drumroll, please): an experiment actually worked... ! And frankly, that was almost enough to make my day without all the other stuff.

And my advisor deserves a lot more credit. The other day when I went in and ranted about the pipettes, etc., my advisor was initially very defensive, and I was annoyed about that. But, since I had previously proposed that we have a meeting with the Whole Lab To Discuss This, it was already on the calendar. So we had the meeting today and I am optimistic that things are going to improve. However slowly they may seem to be moving, they seem to be moving in the right direction. Which is huge. This is one of the only times I can remember when I made a suggestion to a PI about productivity and they actually took my advice. So, kudos for my advisor for being smart enough to realize it was a good idea. Heh heh.

I am so ready for my own lab.

Anyway I have enjoyed reading everyone's advice on how to handle lab maintenance issues... the best idea I heard today was to barcode everything as it comes in, and scan empty bottles as things get emptied. That way inventory is always up to date. Too bad my current lab isn't likely to adopt this habit, but I like the idea of doing it in my own lab someday. And since today was the kind of day when I can almost imagine that actually happening, I will stick with a little optimism for now.

The only potentially bad things today had to do with funding. First, I got some info on the review process for my grant. I had to laugh at the name of the committee: MANPOWER AND TRAINING.


Ahem. I won't even go there.

Anyway, worse than that is the timing: it's going to be a while before I hear anything, which is bad if I don't get a job. And by that I mean, it will be too late for me to re-apply before my current funding runs out.

But if I do get a job, it doesn't matter anyway. Focus on the positive, or something??

Second, I hear an ugly rumor that NIH is cutting all R01 grants by 20% due to the lack of budget appropriations this time around. If that's true, a lot of labs will be going under in the very near future. It got me thinking again about this system where you're punished if you try to save money, but there's never enough of it to go around. I may save my ranting list of things NIH should do differently for a future blog.

Anyway for the time being it is not really my job to worry about the money issue, since I can't apply for an R01 in my current job title. And since I'm told that the vast majority of your time is eaten up by money worries as a PI, I figure I will have plenty of years for that if I get a job. So for now, I'm going to go read some papers, and tomorrow I will generate some more data, with the plan of presenting it at job interviews. Lots of them.