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.


At 12:05 AM, Blogger Jill said...

Would the maths and programming workshop be useful to YOU, or help you shift career paths in a way that you'd like to do?

I mean, it's one thing to do things that you're scared of, but not unless it's something that's really good for YOU. Don't do it just because your boyfriend's doing it! Of course, if it's good for YOU and you can do it with your boyfriend, that's wonderful :)

At 8:11 AM, Anonymous Poly Anna said...

Dear YFS:

My impression of your musings is that you are mostly dealing with your lack of dedication and excitement about your goals, or even lack of them. You do not think what you are doing or going to do is the answer to mankind’s problems and the most important thing that an individual should be doing at the moment. Therefore you are dabbling with theoretical thoughts about “where the grass may be greener.” You are missing the exhilaration and “high” of the moment (reality).

You have voluntarily placed yourself among one of the most hypocritical professions and systems out there, scientists and science. In reality you are enmeshed in primarily a personal ego-driven system, 90% of which is involved in an expensive day to day generation of trivial and duplicative data that will be of no use to mankind anytime. Like business, money as a driver (patents, biotech, higher salaries) has been creeping in over the last 25 years, but largely not there yet.

Yet the enterprise propagandizes at every level from publications, grant proposals to “breakthrough” news that it is working for mankind and should get more and more support. Most scientists even at the bench propagandize concerning the interpretation and significance of their results. In terms of funding and the distribution of it (the hypocritical so-called peer review system), we are enmeshed in a giant 30-40 year juggernaut of waste and lack of innovation that most scientists know down deep is wasteful, must be reformed, but are unwilling to step up and challenge. Even the peer review system, publications and distribution of funding, is a giant sink of energy and dollars to the extent that one wonders whether it should just be a popular vote of scientists or even lottery after a basic or simple triage system. There’s too much fear and ego at stake to turn this giant ship to quickly before it hits a reef.

Given this, what is a poor YFS to do? This is a hypocritical ego-driven competitive system largely based on statistics like in professional sports (results, pubs, citations, grant dollars, etc.) rather than long term altruistic outcomes as professed to the public. If you are an individual (generally a female) with a low ratio of androgen/estrogen that has reduced ego and promotes nurturing you are at a disadvantage to those with a high ratio (generally males) with the ego-driven competitive instinct for the stats until this system is reformed.

All I can say is don’t resort to steroids to get the A/E ratio up. Concentrate on the reality of the moment with the future as “icing on the cake” of the present with your natural ratio. 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. That is why sometimes excess with animals, reagents, massive variable experiments, etc. should be allowed even though the mentor and maybe the trainee suspect it may be a waste of resources in terms of technical results. Once one has gone through this period, it’s like riding a bicycle; you don’t have to do it over and over and it comes naturally.

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. Get some joy out of understanding the system, taking charge of your position in it, and subtly pointing out (testing?) its hypocrisy in your own way.

If you cannot achieve an element of this, then try an environment or other discipline where you might have a shot at this experience. It seems to me that going virtual like with computer science and manipulations of data rather than its primary generation is one step away from this. Maybe just seeing how much money you could make in business might give you a better shot. Or giving in to that age old low A/E-driven urge to be a mother, wife (ahhh, spouse, partner, etc.) and one of these days a grandmother?

Best regards.

Poly Anna


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