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.

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