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

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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.

 

Self Monitoring

After last week’s post (which had been dwelling in various parts of my brain for a while, they just took a while to find each other), I thought it would be interesting to have an ’emotional brain vs functional brain’ de-brief at the end of each workday this week.

In devoting attention to monitor these two major contributors to my productivity and well-being, I’m hoping to develop more control over them…

Monday

I decided to knuckle down and teach myself some maths/ stats, as I have had some preliminary data sitting around for a while, but have not been quite sure how to approach it. After my blog post from Sunday, the concept of not letting my emotions deter me from my goal was at the forefront of my mind. The day went slowly, and it was hard to stay focussed when I started to find things difficult…but, as my twitter feed suggested, I felt pretty good by the end of it:

Tuesday

After getting my head around the basic concepts of Kaplan-Meier on Monday, I thought I should attempt to streamline the process (I had been going step-by-step in excel), and start to introduce a few more challenges.  This did not go so well. I guess because my aim was to ‘go faster’ than the day before. I let the failure get to me; I am starting to feel the time pressures of approaching conferences, and it’s a real concern that I won’t get any data. My slow learning completely fed into this fear.

Wednesday

I headed back into the lab to repeat some Real-Time experiments. I am optimising primers at the moment, and the next step from getting i) product and ii) a reasonable melt-curve from the Real-Time is to run it on a gel to ensure there is just ONE product. After this, I will extract the cDNA from the gel and send it off for sequencing. After this, I have to make sure the efficiency of the primer conditions is optimal. I had got my Real-Times working before but my standard deviations were terrible. I figured it was worth another attempt to get them behaving a bit better. Unfortunately, our Real-Time machine had broken. This made me stressed. I managed to sneak onto the other machine. After about 3 hours of prep and run time, I got my results back and…the run had completely failed. I had used the wrong cDNA samples. This made me stressed. Even though I had finally managed to find the right equipment and get the appropriate training for it in order to execute the next steps of optimisation earlier that morning…it was fast dawning on me that that “next” step was much further away that I had anticipated. This made me stressed. I realised that, to move forwards, I had to go backwards; I needed better quality cDNA from a different source. Just so I could run ANOTHER Real-Time. Just so I could check the product on the gel. Just so I could continue troubleshooting with temperatures and cycles. Before I could even think about getting actual data. This made me stressed. To summarise:

Thursday

Unfortunately, I couldn’t head back into the lab as I had a two day biostatistics course. As you can imagine, I was not excited about this. While the course was challenging, it wasn’t too much of a bash on my mood as it seemed as though everyone else was struggling too. The teacher was patient, and I felt confident that, with time and energy, I could probably figure out what I needed to. I didn’t panic too much when I didn’t know what was going on. In the afternoon, I did some demonstrating in the undergraduate biomed labs. This was  a lot of fun. Some of the other sessions have been quite stressful as I haven’t taken the class before (as a student or a teacher), and I didn’t know where stuff was or how to answer some of the questions regarding the methodologies. THIS session, however, was way better. The students were wrapping up their work and getting ready to write their assignments. I was actually able to help people, and they seemed genuinely grateful for my time. I was in my nice genetics comfort zone, and I was helping students learn…

Friday

More biostatistics. Unfortunately, this session moved faster than the previous one. Stupidly, whenever I started to struggle, I would get easily distracted and tweet about it.

Then I would get well and truly lost as the class moved on without me. I got upset at times. When my friend offered to help me, I truly believed there was nothing he could do…I was stupid, after all. But I reminded myself that this is how my emotional brain always responds to struggles, and had to really push myself to not sulk (seriously.) and just accept his help. He was a really patient teacher, and guided me through the methods…I did understand after all. I was pretty proud that I had managed to ‘talk myself down’ from my default panic mode. In summary however, there was so much information in those session, I know I am going to have to sit and study for a long time before any of it becomes second nature to me. This realisation once more fed into my fear that I am running out of time.

I am at home now, with a headache and still feeling pretty stressed. I think this was a useful exercise though, and I think I have made some progress in controlling my emotional brain. Although, keeping on track with this sort of monitoring will be hard to keep on top of, I’m sure. I just need willpower and time!