Neither the Bang nor the Butt

Before I get started, I would like to define, “science” for the purposes of this post. Please note that science does not equal academia. Academia has its own problems and I am not going anywhere near those (right now)…

science noun
  1. the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment

Like a lot of the things I come out with, this is a preemptive explanation.

This week I filmed a three minute segment for the NBN children’s show, “So There!” One of the producers contacted me after seeing a piece about my outreach work in the Newcastle Herald aaaand I got quite excited.

nbn

It’s a pretty straightforward segment. I perform three “experiments” (which can be easily repeated at home) whilst narrating the science behind what’s happening. This is the basic premise of my kids’ parties, with the obvious difference being those are interactive!

Now, because I am me, and because I am not the most optimistic of individuals, I’d like to think I am aware of most of the pitfalls and judgements attached to science communication – especially with children. Hence this pre-emptive explanation, which should hopefully roughly translate as: Trust me, I know what I’m doing.

Most of the attempts to get children interested in science is based on the (other) Big Bang Theory. This is the theory wherein, if something makes a big enough Bang, then kids will be impressed – and the job is done. Now, I’m all for making kids happy, but as you can imagine, there’s a lot more to science than Bangs. The Big Bang Theory is one of the reasons why IFLS has been so popular – but it’s also one of the reasons why many scientists feel the site can really let the side down when it comes to science communication.

ifls

All credit to the lovely Cyanide and Happiness guys, check them out http://explosm.net/comics/3557/

It’s one of the reasons scientists can shy away from communication and outreach. I was actually talking to one of my colleagues who is very pro-active about spreading the word about his work, but yet he is disappointed by this mentality. He was telling me about a trip to a science museum where he witnessed a kids’ science show which consisted entirely of things which go Bang. Now, because I am me, I took this as a slight towards my TV work (hehehe “my TV work”). I asked him how he proposed we SHOULD get kids interested in science – and of course he didn’t know.

Good scientists need to be a number of things. We need to be inquisitive, organised and creative. We need critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills. If we can encourage kids to develop even a few of these skills, we’re getting there. And remember, we’re not trying to cultivate a generation comprised entirely of scientists. We do not need a world full of researchers – we cannot support a world full of researchers! What we’re really trying to cultivate is a culture. A culture wherein everyone would be aware of science, everyone would respect science and everyone would appreciate science. In this ideal world, logic would prevail – and also there would be more funding for scientific research (!). No one would have to waste their time explaining why Paleo is nonsense, why vaccinating your children is the kindest thing you can do (unless they are immuno -compromised or otherwise unable to receive the injection! Can’t catch me, anti-vaxxers!), why coffee enemas are never going to cure cancer or why climate change is real (just ask John Oliver). People would make decisions based on evidence. People would ask intelligent questions. People would face the world with an open mind.

The truth is, the science is not the Bang – the science is in the asking WHY? In showing kids something so surprising or loud or colourful, we’re encouraging them to ask, “Why?” – this “Why?” is the first step to encouraging a scientific mind. Yes – the kids are looking at Science’s butt as it walks by. And THAT’S when the hard work comes in. Anyone can drop a Mentos into a bottle of Diet Coke, but it’s making the explanation accessible and interesting that’s the tricky part. Also encouraging further questioning – leaving some things unsaid and waiting for the dots to join so you can make way for hypothesis building and fill in the blanks when the time comes (this can be tough on TV…).

My point is, that just because I am taking advantage of the Other Big Bang Theory, it doesn’t mean that I am “selling out”. I still consider myself a scientist, and I still hold the values of science very close. I’m using the Theory as leverage. It’s my “in” for building the foundation for inquisitive minds.

Trust me, I know what I’m doing.

As far as developing this mind even further – beyond the Bang, beyond the butt– what do you think? How can we encourage appreciation for the scientific method – hypothesis forming, how to scrutinise sources, critical thinking – as children get older and we have a bit more faith in their attention span?

I’ve had a few lesson plan/ outreach activity/ museum ideas around this theme and I’d love to share them with any interested teachers or communicators!

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My Fellow Tweeps-To-Be

Last week, I was honored to be a part of the Franklin Women event, “Making social media work for your career.” I had a really great evening; it was wonderful to be surrounded by such supportive, motivated and intelligent women. Thank you to everyone who came, and to the inspirational Dr Melina Georgousakis for inviting me to be a part of it.

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Though we did address a number of platforms on the night, Twitter was more or less the headlining act. A number of attendees either signed up for an account or sent their first tweet that very night, as a result of being inspired by the discussions (Shout out to @mrsxandra @magda_ellis @Brigid_Og @bhonah025 and @kamilla_marzec to name a few!).

While I’m excited to be spreading the good word, I’m also aware that merely joining Twitter does not a tweep make (tweep (n) regular user and enjoyer of Twitter). A billion users who tried Twitter have never come back. This is due in part to (what I believe to be) some shortcomings of the platform, as well as people not really knowing HOW to make the most out of their account.

I’m a natural problem solver (see: PhD student), as well as a bit of a bossy pants, so I’m here to provide you with a solution. A short(ish) primer on how to make the most of your brand spanking new (or plain neglected) Twitter account.

Twitter Terminology

#            The hashtag is a way to label your tweet. If you are tweeting about a TV show, conference, hobby etc and include a relevant #hashtag, it means that someone searching for relevant tweets can find yours easily. It’s also how a topic can start to “Trend”: if millions of people are talking about marriage equality (Hooray!), then the relevant #hashtag, #LoveWins may well start to Trend. Oh look!

lovewins

Follow         If you follow someone, their tweets will appear in your feed (feed = flow of tweets as seen on your home page).

@          @ represents the start of someone’s Twitter handle (I’m @cfawarren), and it’s also a way to send a tweet to someone (“Hey @cfawarren, I found this picture of a guinea-pig in a sombrero, thought you might enjoy!”). They will receive a notification of your tweet. Using @handle means that only the person you are tweeting and their followers will be able to see the tweet.

.@         Using .@ instead of @ means that your tweet can be seen by anyone (but only the person you are tweeting will get a notification). Using @ or .@ is often referred to in digital and non-digital conversation as “pinging” (“Did you see @cfawarren was pinging me pictures of guinea pigs all day AGAIN today?!”).

Retweet              (square arrows) If you retweet a tweet, it means it will appear in all of your follower’s newsfeeds.

Favourite            (star) If you favourite a tweet, the tweeter will get a notification. It’s the Twitter equivalent of a Facebook “like”. It basically says, “I approve!”, but with minimal actual effort. Favourited tweets will also get put in your Favourites List (on your profile page). It can be useful for marking things to read later.

favRT

Lists       You can compile your followers into lists, then look at the feed for each list separately. One of the reasons some people don’t like Twitter is that it moves too fast. If you follow a few actual friends as well as a couple of hundred scientists, science news sources and guinea pig breeders, chances are you will never actually see any of your friends’ tweets unless they are pinging you specifically. By putting your friends IRL (in real life) into a list, you can make sure you see everything they have to say. Unfortunetely, building lists in Twitter is a pain in the balls (very fiddly, not streamlined at all) so it’s best to add people into the relevant list as you follow them. This is best practise…but I don’t do it because I’m impatient. If you already have a load of tweeps you’d like to organise into lists, I’d recommend doing it in Hootsuite (though still not perfect).

DM        Sending a DM (direct message) to someone means that only they can see it. It’s a private conversation.

pigs

Building Your Twitter Experience

Twitter is a way to personalise the internet. Millions of articles are posted online every day: with Twitter, you can increase the chances that you’ll see the ones which are relevant to you. And it will facilitate discussions with others about topics YOU care about. From experience, you are way less likely to get trolled on Twitter than you are on a message board (but the risk is definitely still there!). Twitter is a way to connect with people with similar interests to you, and to access information about your interests. But you have to establish your follows and followers first. Here’s some tips on getting started and speeding up the process:

-Use lists             You can build your own lists (as mentioned previously) in order to organise your tweeps. You can also subscribe to other people’s lists. Once you subscribe to someone’s list, all of the tweets from tweeps on that list will appear in your feed. You can still unfollow an individual from a list you are subscribed to, don’t worry, it’s not an all or nothing system. This is a quick way to make your news feed interesting. I have several science-y lists you are welcome to subscribe to.

-Write a bio       You can’t expect people to follow you if they don’t know who you are. Use the bio feature to write a few words about yourself. Think about the kind of people you want to connect with and why: if they read your bio, do you think they’d find YOU of interest? I generally don’t follow back people without a bio because I don’t know who they are: I generally assume it’s a spammer.

-Have a display pic         Fair enough if you don’t want your face attached to your profile. Pick a picture of your pet guinea pig, a plant, a test tube, whatever. Just make sure it’s not the sodding egg. That egg screams, “I never use this account so don’t bother following me” and also “SPAM SPAM SPAM”.

No.

No.

-Have a personality        Try not to be too sterile when it comes to tweeting. I like to obide by “The Grandma Rule” (if you wouldn’t say it in front of your Grandma, don’t say it on the internet), and also “The Cocktail Party Rule” (if you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face in front of a room full of people, don’t say it on the internet – thanks @StartupShelley). But that doesn’t mean you have to be a robot. Express your opinions, your loves, your hates, yourself! The connections you make will be way more valuable, you’ll enjoy it more and you’ll help make scientists look like actual humans.

All set? Got the lingo down and a couple of interesting followers? Great! Let’s go! Tweet away! Oh wait…

What to Tweet

A few suggestions…

-Be inspired by some trending hashtags               You might notice that your newsfeed will become inundated with recurring hashtags or themes from time to time. Remember #GirlsWithToys and #distractinglysexy ? These were great hashtags because they were accessible, fun and they were promoting an important message about women in science. Keep your eyes peeled for another opportunity like this, I’m sure it won’t be long before another one comes along.

Elevator pitching          Here’s one I’d like to think most academics are capable of. Tweet about your research! Try and make it as accessible as possible without being patronising. Get your “science sound bites” (another thanks to @StartupShelley !) out there. It’s a rhetoric I’ve heard several times at sci-comm events, but it’s true: the internet is a vacuum. If you don’t get in there and put actual science into the arena, there’s an endless supply of pseudoscientists waiting to make their contribution instead. Tweeting about your research also builds your personal “brand”. Wanky, I know. But if you put yourself out there as the expert that you are, people will recognise it. Importantly, journalists will recognise it. Future employers will notice it. Potential collaborators will recognise it.

-Share what you’re reading                      What interesting news or topical pieces have you read recently? What was your take on it? Did it remind you of anyone who might appreciate it? Ping, hashtag and retweet away! A lot of articles will have a “Twitter share” button already on the page.

-What are you doing this weekend?       Easy as.

-Join in with a conversation        Talk to your friends. Talk to strangers. Talk to (potential) mentors. If you can see people are having a conversation about something that interests you, jump in!

-Conferences     Find out the official hashtag for a conference or event, and use it to tweet your ideas and interpretations of presentations. Use it to find new tweep friends IRL! Use it to engage with people who aren’t at the conference but who want to know more. Use it to ask presenters questions if you’re feeling shy.

Twitter has helped me to build my confidence and my networks. It’s helped with my research and training. It’s helped me to connect with mentors. It’s helped me build my reputation. It’s helped me secure a number of invaluable opportunities (some of which I actually got paid for!).

Last but not least: it’s fun! Give it a go and let me know how you get on.

pic pc

Love, Trust, Science and Ducks

Several weeks ago, a well-respected and widely popular Australian cartoonist, Michael Leunig published what appeared to be an anti-vaccination cartoon in The Age.

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I, among others, was disappointed. Others were angry AND disappointed. Predictably, plenty of people took to twitter to criticize the artist’s work and opinions.

This is pretty typical of non-anti-vaxxers’ response to anti-vaxxers. On the one hand, it’s nice to know that the majority of us regard the anti-vaxx message as one of ignorance as opposed to one to be taken seriously. On the other hand, treating these people with such disrespect and aggression isn’t really getting us anywhere.

While respecting the individual’s right to opinion is a valuable moral to hold, respect in this instance can be a pretty hard thing to find. Parents who elect not to vaccinate are putting other babies and immuno-compromised individuals at risk, whilst putting an unnecessary strain on health care systems.  Many of us are lucky enough to never have witnessed the devastating effects of these preventable diseases thanks to the technological advances in modern medicine. Some of us are unenlightened enough to regard this luck with such complacency that they will consciously make the decision to leave their children unprotected.

However, the reality of the matter is that these people are standing up against vaccination because they are scared. They are standing up to defend their children and their community for what they perceive to be a very real danger. This is all despite the fact that government, scientists, health care workers and journalists (or at least those worth their salt) have struggled for so long to reassure those of us who may be worried about the adverse consequences of vaccination.

There is, to date, no scientific evidence which suggests that not vaccinating a child is a healthier choice than vaccinating a child. Searching the term “anti-vaccination” in a science publication database brings up nothing but communication guidelines for health care workers and sociological studies. I could copy and paste infinite links to scientific publications here (Oh go on, have a few [ref] [ref]), but it would do nothing to sway the opinion of an anti-vaxxer.

So we can review. Aggressive techniques for reasoning are, unsurprisingly, ineffective. Educational techniques for reasoning are ineffective (see, “The Backfire Effect” and a wonderful This American Life episode which explores this theme). Even bribery techniques are /would be ineffective (and immoral…).

Why is this? Why does the anti-vaxx movement persist?

At the root of these educational techniques for reasoning i.e. the scientific argument, lays a major factor which often gets forgotten about.

Trust.

Doctors and scientists are asking the public to trust them. More than that: they are asking the public to trust science.

Many of us view science as a collection of facts. It’s unsurprising therefore that the public can distrust science. One day scientists are telling them that red wine is good for you because is decreases risk for cardiovascular disease, while the next day they’re reminding them that alcohol is a carcinogen, so don’t go crazy now. Who are these idiot scientists if they can’t even get their facts i.e. science right?

Where the idea of science being a collection of facts came from, I have no idea. But it’s a poisonous idea and it’s getting everyone into a lot of unnecessary trouble.

Science is a discipline. It’s an ever-evolving collection of ideas and evidence, constantly being constructed and deconstructed by people who dedicate their entire lives to this discipline. A career in scientific research is a blood bath. You are continually having your work ripped to shreds by your colleagues. And rightly so: researchers are building the legacy of their generation. There are strict systems in place to ensure that sub-par science will not make it into publication (and thus into the legacy). This system itself, the academic system, is forever evolving to improve the quality of the science it produces.

It makes sense therefore that science will contradict itself. It’s the very nature of the beast. Maybe this is why the public has so many trust issues with doctors and scientists. Who’s to say we won’t find anti-vaccination evidence tomorrow?

The thing is, we can’t promise that. By the same token though, I can’t promise you that I won’t wake up a million dollars richer tomorrow. But I’m pretty bloody sure about it. No one has ever randomly deposited cash in my bank account before, I haven’t entered any competitions and I haven’t been promoted. I’m using evidence to inform my conclusion that I am “pretty bloody sure” I won’t wake up a million dollars richer tomorrow.

In a recent interview with Michael Leunig on ABC News, he states,

“I think the science is incomplete, I honestly do.”

Well, I should hope so. Science is never complete. But what’s important to remember is that the evidence we have so far demonstrates that i) vaccinations aren’t dangerous (aside from some minor and temporary side effects) and ii) the diseases they protect against are. NOT vaccinating is like me assuming that I WILL wake up a million dollars richer AND going out and making a tonne of business deals with shady characters who have a habit of shooting off knee caps.

So how do we go about addressing our trust issues? I know this is often suggested as a “cure for all” in science communication circles, but improved education is certainly one way to go about it. If we were to teach how academic culture is designed to optimise the production of “good” science, children should begin to spot the variation in quality between different sources of information.

But then again, is an appreciation of science something we can physically teach?

Perhaps distrust is just an embedded human instinct, and we are forever destined to argue with each other. Alternatively, is our marketing-obsessed culture priming people for distrust? Is this age of distrust a consequence of the increased availability of (mis)information over the internet? A skeptical mind is a valuable thing, but a skeptical mind with access to misinformation could actually be considered dangerous.

Leunig made an interesting point during his interview,

“Is science the final say on everything?”

Well, no. Science will never have “a final say”. But it has a say. In fact, it has the only say. It’s the only real tool we have to maneuver ourselves and our families safely through this wonderful and mysterious thing we call life.

A Cop Out

So I’ve been going through a bit of a valley of shit and was waiting to get out of the other side, so that I could write a post that goes something like this:

“Hey kids, sometimes life gets you down. But ya know what? *insert major realisation here*. In conclusion: it’s going to be OK.”

But I wasn’t getting out of the valley, and I still haven’t. I’m now getting to the stage where I have started to notice OTHER PEOPLE getting sick of my negativity. Instead of responding to this by readjusting my perspectives accordingly, it’s all turned into a kind of positive feedback loop, wherein I’m just left internally yelling, “I KNOW, RIGHT?! HOW ANNOYING IS PESSIMISM! GOD!”

When I take a step outside of my own brain (sorry Nikola), I can see how people would get confused and frustrated by my constant gloom. A lot of really (potentially) exciting stuff has been happening recently. Intrigued?

Reasons for me to not feel shitty:

-I got to talk to lots of *famous researchers at the Keystone Conference about my project AND THEY GAVE A SHIT (*in my field)

-I’ve had the offer to go and do some of my project work overseas.

-Because of this blog, I’ve got involved in a super exciting science careers/ gender equality project.

-I may have found myself a beautiful mentor in doing so.

-The inaugural EMBL PhD Australia Symposium, which I was on the committee for, went so so so so fabulously last week.

-I’ve finally got my teeth stuck into the Scientists in Schools project.

-I was invited (INVITED) to give a talk to a group of school girls about careers in biology.

…and yet. I’m not excited. I’m pretty sure that this is all about to come caving in, the minute someone realises that (I’m not actually supposed to be here). Despite all of the above, and the number of friends, family and co-workers spurring me on, my anxiety remains (see Fig.1). I’ve come to see that it doesn’t matter what’s going on externally, I’ll always find a reason to question my own validity, and that’s the way it’s always been.

self belief

Figure 1. Theories for self acceptance strategy A.Ideal scenario i.e. a falsity. B.Actual scenario.

When I realised this, I decided to make another list. A much more depressing one than the one above.

Reasons I have previously found to question my own validity as an actual human, capable of achieving things:

-Not having a boyfriend

-Not having enough friends

-Not getting along with absolutely everyone I have come into contact with

(warming up now)

-Being overweight

-Not being pretty enough

-Not wanting to play violin anymore

-Not liking sports

-Not partying “hard enough”

-Not being a mermaid

OK, so that last one hasn’t bothered me in a while, but it used to. I was thinking hard for a while about what it is that’s bothering me so much right now, so I could stick that one on the list too. Then I realised there were lots of reasons, and that made me sad and it probably didn’t matter anyway.

Putting that list together was a bit emotionally overwhelming for me. I saw how ridiculous it all looks now and consequently how ridiculous “Not getting a western blot to work” will most likely look in 5 years’ time.

You’d think now is when I’d start to write about how I’ve learned my lesson, and I’m moving forward and not sweating the small stuff etc. But if you were paying attention at the beginning then you’d know that’s not how it’s going to go, OK?

I’m still frickin’ crabby. I’m still worried. Writing experiment plans and literature reviews still makes me nervous. I’m still pretty sure things aren’t going to go my way. So here’s my shoddy excuse of a conclusion:

Creating things makes me feel better, and I just created this blog post.

shutup1

The Pointy End

I just returned home from a wonderful conference (and holiday – cue strange looks from fellow scientists). I’m feeling inspired but also terrified. I’ve realised how awesome my project (potentially) is, but also the huge amount of work I have to do before I get there. I digress; I have a lot of stories to tell from last month’s experiences, and this realisation of what my future potentially holds is just one of them. And it’s not the one I’m supposed to be telling right now. Ahem.

On the first morning of the conference I sat myself at a breakfast  table with a pair of senior (ish) scientists who I had been introduced to the previous evening. They told me about another great conference which was coming up in 2016, and advised me to attend if not just for the science, then the venue. I replied that I hoped I’d be finished up with my PhD by then, so maybe I couldn’t attend.

Them: “Oh, but you’ll still be in the field.”

Me: “Yeh, maybe.”

Them: *genuine blank faces* “What do you mean?”

Me: “Well, I don’t know if I’ll stay on in research.”

I don’t think I can quite describe the looks on their faces, only that they led to my immediate realisation that I had made the scientist faux-pas equivalent of farting loudly at the dinner table, or maybe proudly admitting to killing my own mother. I felt extremely ashamed and unprofessional, worried that I had just casually blown several career bridges.  These guys were going to be warning anyone and everyone about that crazy bitch who thought there was a life outside of academia.

As well as ashamed and unprofessional, I also felt viscously defensive. For once, I was able to keep my opinions to myself and instead internalised my rage, ready for a highly emotionally charged text marathon with my supervisor later that evening.

How many other senior scientists are completely unaware of the fact that they are in the pointy end of the research career triangle? What do they think happens to all those PhD students who waft in and out of their peripheral vision while they’re busy leaning back in their office chair, hands behind their back, legs spread wide in a macho stance, while they tell everyone to “JUST GET IT DONE.”?

(sidenote: I may have had several unfavourable experiences with these Silverback types.)

This ingrained ideology of academia being the One True Path is many things.

  1. It is unrealistic (see above: IT’S A TRIANGLE).
  2. It is unsupportive (see above: invocation of shame, inadequacy and unprofessionalism).
  3. It is unhelpful.

So what should “we” (i.e. scientists, research community, universities) do? What IS helpful?

Here is when I call upon a recent episode of RN’s Life Matters, “Early career scientists trapped in ‘perpetual adolescence’”. The show featured Prof Doug Hilton (Director of WEHI in Melbourne) and Dr Melina Georgousakis (founder of Franklin Women and senior research officer, National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance). Both of these fantastic scientists emphasised the idea that we need to see a change.

We need a change in culture in science; we need to let scientists know, from an early stage in their training, that if you don’t stay in academia, you’re not a failure and you’re not letting the system down. We also need more training for postgrads where the assumption isn’t made that they will be the Silverbacks of the future. By the time we graduate, we already have obtained so many skills, on top of the “technical stuff”; we just need to get better at realising this and promoting ourselves and our talent.

This all being said, the idea of leaving research forever does make me sad. My project is part of me, and I can’t imagine letting it go completely. I’ve actually spoken to several scientists in industry, who all recommend that I try to make it in research before trying in any other field. This makes me mad. I don’t want to get to the point where I’m forced to surrender a particular career. I want to call the shots!

To quote Amy Poehler, it’s best to, “treat your career like a bad boyfriend.”.

“Your career won’t take care of you. It won’t call you back or introduce you to its parents. Your career will openly flirt with other people while you are around… it is healthy to remember you can always leave and go to sleep with somebody else”.

But the question is, can I really break it off with my “bad boyfriend”, before he breaks it off with me? Do I have the courage? What if he really does turn it around? From experience, it hurts like hell whether you are the dumper or the dump-ee.

There is always be that period of mourning.

My career strategy has always been: don’t have one. Keep your eyes open for every opportunity that comes your way, and do what interests you. As Tina Fey says, “Say yes, and you’ll figure it all out afterwards.” I know I hardly have a lifetime of experience to reflect on, but this strategy has worked for me so far.

In conclusion I guess, I’ve learned/ reinforced to myself:

  1. I need to keep my eyes open for every opportunity.
  2. I need to be aware of my own awesomeness.
  3. The One True Path is BS (i.e. fuck the haters.)

The Unavoidable Vulnerability of Research

I had a bit of a dud week this week. I was planning on doing some flow cytometry; but I didn’t get around to booking it until Monday and, surprise surprise, the machine had been booked out. So I switched tact and decided to finally run some plate assays I had been avoiding. Unfortunately, I seeded my cells too low and they never quite got over the hump. By the time I realised the cells couldn’t be used, it was Wednesday morning, I didn’t have any backup cells and I wasn’t going to have any lab time on Thursday.

It was going to be an experiment-less week.

I got over this annoyance fairly rapidly (go me!), as I realised it had been a while since I sat down and did some reading. Last time I presented my work, I got some pretty interesting questions about the project background, which I had never actually considered. In short, it was about time I got in some reading. At this point, I had already envisaged my blog post for the week. It was going to be called, “In Favour of a Week Off,” and it was going to be all about how fabulous it was to get lost in reading material. HA.

There are an infinite number of questions people could ask me about my work. I still don’t know what my results mean. In order to increase the chances of me knowing the answers to questions and being about to properly interpret my data, it’s in my best interests to read as much as I can get my hands on. Somewhat inevitably however, I would reach a point in a publication where I struggled to understand. I would have to spend a long time making notes and scribbling out concepts, then when I looked at the time I would panic as I realised what a huge, time consuming and exhausting experience this was all destined to be. I began to replace note making and scribbling with procrastination, and my reading slowed even more.

In one of my efforts to procrastinate in at least a somewhat productive way, I found myself listening to a TED podcast. I heard from another researcher; a vulnerability researcher named Brene Brown. Brene described the phenomena of shame and vulnerability, wherein shame is something which we will all experience, and it can be described more accurately as the fear of disconnection, or the fear that we’ll get spotted for “not being (blank) enough”. I realised that what I had been struggling with was shame. I was scared that I would get spotted for not being smart enough, and therefore not truly belonging in the scientist community.

I was scared that, unless I read and understood everything in my field before I talked about my project in public again, I could be shamed for not knowing enough. No wonder reading was such a stifling experience. I was unintentionally telling myself that, unless I knew everything, there was no point even trying. But, in reality, of course we can never know everything about our field. Whenever we walk up to the podium or stand in front of our poster, we are exposing ourselves to the vulnerability that one of our peers will point out something we hadn’t thought about or realised before. It’s a vulnerability that we just need to get used to, because it’s all part and package of what we do…or, as one of my new favorite researchers would put it, 

“If you’re gonna go into the arena, you’re gonna get your butt kicked.
…as scary and dangerous as that sounds, it’s not as scary and dangerous as spending your life on the outside looking in.”

Instead of fixating on what I don’t understand, or all the mountains of papers that I haven’t read yet, I just need to get on with it, and (more importantly) give myself credit where it’s due, instead of getting stuck in cycles of self-abuse.

 

Stormy Seas

Yesterday I had a missed phone call from my real-estate agent. First thought: “Oh great, the owners have decided to sell and they want us to terminate the lease early.”

I ran a routine stats test on my data and it spat out a p value of 0.0001. First thought: “I must have put the wrong numbers in.”

I got some data back which suggested that all of the work I was planning on doing for the next six months would have to be completely altered, and that I had no idea where to start. First thought, “I don’t have time for this.” But then, “I won’t have time to finish my PhD.” And then, “I am going to have to forfeit my visa. I am going to have to go back to the UK. My boyfriend and I will probably end up splitting up due to the distance. Everyone will talk about me behind my back, my friends will all forget about me.”

As you can imagine, these negative tendencies can make things a bit more difficult than they necessarily need to be.

I genuinely try and do everything I can to put myself in a position of strength so that when the worst does happen, I can try not to panic. Of late, this has meant that I have been attending a mindfulness workshop, provided for free by my university. The techniques themselves aren’t exactly ground-breaking. Anyone who has been in counselling, or even just to a yoga class, will most likely have tried meditation. They will probably also know how much of a pain in the arse in can be and how much discipline it can require.

Two weeks into the course, I had a bit of a break down at work, which just happened to bleed into my whole weekend. In my head (luckily, not out loud) I was so pissed off with everyone at the workshop, and all the concepts they had taught us. How ridiculous that you can be expected to sit down and meditate when (excuse the cliché), it feels as though your world is closing in around you. What’s the point in practising for a raging storm, when all you’re equipped with in preparation is a kiddy pool?

Somehow, with the help of time, friends, some fresh air, my supervisor and my family, I was able to pull myself out of that particular rut. I’ve “recommitted” to the concepts of mindfulness and meditation. I think that the concept of weathering a storm still stands here, and yes, maybe we are only equipped with limited tools in order to prepare for it. One of the most basic tools that we have, however, is our capacity to take care of ourselves.

Self-care is a preventative measure, like exercise, brushing our teeth or not smoking.  Yet so often, it gets swept under the rug. How often do we take time to check in with ourselves? When things start to get rough, and I can feel a panic attack pending, there might not be an instantaneous resolution. But I’m pretty sure that if I commit myself to self-care on a regular basis, I will spot the signs of negativity far in advance of a panic attack even happening.

Being mindful and taking time out to meditate regularly is a way of looking up at the clouds, checking for icebergs and performing a stock check, so we can decide whether to change course, call for help, or restock our supplies.