A Date with The Doctor

About a month ago, I spotted Dr Karl at a book signing in my local shopping centre.

Part of me was desperate to talk to him and tell him how awesome he was. But part of me knew that he must get so sick of people fan splurging all over him. The second part of me won out, and I left the shopping centre feeling somewhat proud that I had made a very grownup decision.

Later that evening, I was harbouring a toddler-esque resentment of my grownup decision. I sat sulking on Twitter, scrolling through Dr Karl’s feed, inwardly scolding myself for missing out on the opportunity to fan splurge on THE Dr Karl. As a reflection of this inner turmoil, I somewhat-joke tweeted:

Dear @DoctorKarl, I want your job.

Later that evening, my game of Scrabble (no, really) was interrupted by my phone.

karl tweet

Several weeks later, I rolled up at the ABC in Sydney and presented myself to the receptionist.

“I…I’m here to see…Dr Karl?”

“OK, sure just sign in here”

There was a space for “Host Staff Member” on the slip he had handed me.

“Erm…I…I don’t know how to spell his last name.”

He laughed. “That’s OK. Just take a seat over there and I’ll track him down for you.”

He handed me an ABC Visitor Pass and I wondered over to the sofas he had indicated.  I immediately set about trying to take a stealthy selfie of me and my pass, figuring it would take the receptionist a while to find my host. Caught up in awkward angles and unflattering close-ups, my selfie taking was interrupted almost immediately.

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“He’s in the coffee shop; you can go and meet him there.”

I find my way to the coffee shop without embarrassing incident, and am beckoned over to Dr Karl’s table by The Man Himself. (He’s wearing an Americana print shirt with a Route 66 belt buckle, for those of you who are interested. NB You should ALL be interested).

Karl shakes my hand and introduces me to the two other people at the table, his wife and his “body guard” (a slight, short-haired lady, who I assume is in fact his publicist…but she could just have a mean right hook, what do I know?). They are discussing titles for this year’s book. Karl will be writing his 38th book this year, and they settled on:

You’re Kidding Right, I Definitely Do Not Have The Authority Or Permission To Talk About That

After coffee, Karl gives me a Brief History of the ABC Ultimo Building. He moves with purpose and a near constant commentary of our surroundings. At this point in the day, this commentary regards the age and orientation of the building. However, at other stages of the day, it will instead focus on the pattern of the traffic lights, the speed of the elevator we’re standing in or who is currently walking past the recording booth. It’s actually very comforting in an odd sort of way. He takes me up to the third floor balcony space, where he can point out the ABC satellite dish.

“How long does it take for a typical communications satellite to orbit the Earth?”

“Errrrm I don’t know? Sorry.”

“That’s OK, it’s only one of the greatest achievements of mankind, why should you know? There are other things to think about, like the Kardashians.”

I didn’t have much time to think about how I felt about being spoken to like this, as Karl was already moving on with more detail about the technicalities of the ABC broadcasting systems…most of which goes over my head, as I am busy nodding and smiling*. He even leads me into the high security main control room, warning me not to touch any of the buttons or cables.

As Karl sets up for his ABC 612 Brisbane segment, I am left with the guys in the transmission control room , as they tell me about their jobs keeping the entire country in touch with the ABC. They are quick to remind me that this task is a bit tricker in Australia than the UK, a country which can fit inside Victoria. Later in the day, Karl tells me that he enjoys having his “Tardis” (isolated soundproofed room) in such close proximity to these guys as he has a lot of respect for their profession and expertise. No kidding.

I am directed into Karl’s Tardis, where he is sat with his laptop open and Skype running. He is about to go on air and one of the producers is typing messages to Karl on Skype, writing out some of the questions they have been texted, tweeted, emailed or called in. This is the first time I realise that Karl has literally no time to research the answers to the questions he is asked. Within a minute of Karl and the producer typing their “Good Mornings”, Karl is live with Steve Austin and answering questions about solar panel efficiency, towel drying and weight loss. Initially I thought the producer would continually type out questions on Skype for Karl to select, but often he was given no choice of which question to answer. Dr Karl is a sodding enigma.

After the ABC 612 segment, we dash upstairs to the Triple J studios to join Zan Rowe for a one-hour Q&A session with callers to the radio show. Karl is quick to tell Zan off for partying too hard over the weekend at Beat the Drum, and they are left with about 45 seconds to talk about some of the callers they’ve had so far. With Zan’s show, the guys do get a break every few minutes while she puts a record on, and while they do use that time to discuss the upcoming calls, there isn’t much picking and choosing. Karl’s happy to tackle just about everything (however I did get the feeling that younger kids often got a preference…so feel free to recruit some younger siblings/ nieces/ nephews/ cousins/ passing school children if you are really desperate to get on the show). Although Karl was happy to answer any question, it’s pretty important to note that, like any half decent scientist, he knows when to say those magical words, “I don’t know!”.

A lot of the questions have obviously been brought on by the Australian summer, as sweat and sunburn make a few appearances. During an explanation about UV, Karl tells us:

“UV-A causes Ageing, UV-B causes sun-Burn and UV-C causes Cancer.”

A couple of seconds later, my phone buzzes as my supervisor has sent me an angry text message:

nikola text

I show Karl during one of the music breaks, and he looks a bit concerned. He asks that Nikola send him some references and he’ll have to do some reading. When Nikola sends the papers through a few minutes later, he thanks me enthusiastically. This guy loves his scientific literature. He tells me he’ll read it through and correct himself next week.

As the show comes to a close, Karl and Zan move outside of the studio to take their weekly picture. A few awkward moments pass as I’m unsure whether I’m supposed to be IN the picture or taking it. I’m more than flattered when Zan and Karl usher me between them and one of the producers emerges to take our photo. Which is now my phone, Twitter and Facebook background picture. Obviously.

zan karl

Karl and I have lunch together, and he asks me about my PhD project. We talk about why melanoma incidence in Australia is so high, and why it has such chemoresistance tendencies. This is the one and only time I feel as though it’s ME educating HIM, although he could just have been humouring me. The UV thing has obviously piqued his interest, and he presses me to tell him everything I know about the differences in wavelengths. He seems almost as disappointed as me that I can’t really help him out. I begin to feel as though every other thing I say to Doctor Karl is, “I don’t know,” and I apologise for my stupidity. He tells me,

“You’re not stupid, you’re just ignorant in some areas. There’s a big difference between stupidity and ignorance.”

Again, I’m not given too much time to dwell on how this makes me feel, as he moves on to tell me about ACTUAL stupid people, like climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers, as well as conspiracy theorists.

We have another hour before his next show, but Karl has scheduled reading for this time: he reads over $10,000 worth of scientific literature a year. I tell him how impressed I am by his memory, and he tells me he actually has a “terrible memory”, and he has several mechanisms to help it along. Firstly, he has an extensive filing system on his laptop. When he reads something interesting, the coupling of reading with the action of filing helps him to remember. Secondly, he tries to write science stories as often as he can, always with the intention to publish. I ask him how much sleep he gets and I’m kind of pissed off when he tells me, “8 hours.”

Karl lends me some magazines to read (National Geographic and Scientific American Mind), and I trot off to entertain myself for the next hour. Inspired by Karl’s dedication to science, I put down my smartphone, get out my notebook and attempt to really try to learn SOMETHING in the next hour. Note to self: it’s hard to focus when you are buzzing from exhaustive fan-splurge.

We dash out for coffee. Without asking, Karl orders me an espresso and is somewhat distraught when I ask for a flat white instead. He insists that I at least TRY his, and justifies that his coffee must be nicer than mine because I’m not making “MMMMMM” noises anywhere near as loud as him, nor gesticulating anywhere near as wildly. As if to make a point, he draws me the chemical structure of caffeine, alongside that of theo-bromine (the “active ingredient” in cacao). They look remarkably similar, and, literally translated, theo-bromine means, “food of the Gods”. I ask Karl to sign his structures and he obliges (see, even HE doesn’t know how to spell his last name).

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We dash back into the ABC with about 30 seconds to spare before he’s live with Rhod Sharp on BBC Radio Five Live (fun fact: Rhod is actually broadcasting from Massachusetts, USA live to his listeners in the UK). The show goes for an hour, plenty of time for Karl to educate us on global warming, methods of investigating the Earth’s core, human cartilage, satellite highways and cheese dreams (NB Not actually A Thing). It’s during this show that I realise that Karl’s earlier Kardashian comment (and several others which could have caused offence) is really just part of his humour. He’s just so fast that you don’t often have time to realise that he’s being funny. At one point, Karl suggests that we stop women from waring out their cartilage by carrying them around everywhere. But in the next breath he’s telling us about dietary supplements which can actually aid cartilage health. Neither the host of the radio show nor the listener had time to laugh, because he’s tells these “jokes” with such confidence in exactly the same tone and manner as he when he talks science.

There are two more shows in the day, half an hour with ABC 105.7 Darwin, as well as half an hour with ABC 720 Perth. In the brief periods in between shows, Karl is replying to tweets (he endeavors to reply to every question) and emails as well as reading/ filing science articles. It’s during one of these shows (forgive my memory) that someone calls in to ask about something (?), only for Karl to respond,

“I’m sorry, that’s one of my areas of ignorance. We all have areas of ignorance, and that’s mine.”

…and I’m comforted once more. He really didn’t mean anything offensive when he had called me ignorant at lunch time, he was being purely logical. This is not the only occasion throughout the day when Karl is humble; one radio host introduces him as a, “genius”, and is quickly corrected. The average IQ is 100, and Karl’s IQ is just 110. And when I complimented him on his memory earlier in the day, again he was quick to “correct” me (I’m still extremely impressed).

As we pack away for the day, I am regaled with instructions of how to recognise a “herpetologist” (a person who studies reptiles and amphibians will usually have a missing tip from one of their finger), as well as a brief description of Karl’s two daughters (one in high school, and another has just got a job in her chosen field, fashion and textiles).

We bid our farewells, and Karl thanks me again for bringing some more facts about UV to his attention. I give him one last fan-splurge (THANKS SO MUCH FOR THE OPPORTUNITEEEEE!). He shakes my hand, I hand in my precious visitor pass and wonder back out onto the Sydney streets, day-dreaming about satellites, cheese dreams and ejaculatory sneezes.

*I’m truly sorry that I didn’t understand what was going on. It was so clear that this was one of Karls’ favourite topics but Physics has always been my weak point. I know that’s no excuse. And I have been reading up on telecommunications since! But I’m definitely not confident enough to write about it yet.

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.


Lessons About Me: Chapter 1

While I hope to learn a lot about melanoma, cell death pathways, DNA damage repair and all the associated lab techniques throughout the duration of my PhD, I also hope to learn about myself. I’d like to think that I will be able to write a few ‘chapters’ on this topic by the end of this ordeal, so here is a rough draft of one of them.

Chapter 1: I Am A Slow Learner With A Terrible Memory

I’m not sure how much confidence I can claim this with, as I have never really carried out any actual comparisons or experiments on the subject, but anecdotal evidence (don’t judge me, fellow scientists) suggests this is the case. To name a few instances/ cases:

-I have to read a paper at least twice, scribble over it at least once, and make notes on it once or two times (hand written summary flow charts plus typed up summary paragraph) before it will make sense to me. I have to type up notes because my memory is defined by the limitations of “Ctrl+F”.

-I have to carry out a protocol at least twice before I can do it without being terrified that I will make a mistake, and even when I begin to relax (to the extent when I don’t need to remind myself to breathe), I still go by the protocol, and read each instruction multiple times before actually carrying it out. The words ‘discard supernatant’ prompt a required re-reading of the entire protocol from the start, just in case.

-If I don’t write my notes like they are for a stranger, they won’t make any sense to me 12 hrs+ later, because I will have forgotten the entire context.

-Things don’t make sense to me unless I can place them into context. Unfortunately, placing things into context can take a very long time, and I often lack the patience and self-confidence (i.e. “this is taking me too long, I am obviously stupid.”) to make it the full circle. E.g. A friend of mine once offered a crash course in data mining, and gave me a few chapters to read. We came together to discuss the chapters and he went through each mathematical concept/ formula step by step. Although I could understand each chunk of the puzzle, I couldn’t see the significance of any of it until we got to the end. Until that moment, I was convinced that I was just plain incapable of understanding data mining, and that my friend had been wasting his time.

Now, I have been told in the past that some of these posts can come off a bit negative. So, while the title of this particular ‘chapter’ might SOUND a little self-abusive, I’m actually willing to admit that I am pretty proud of how I have learned to cope with these characteristics.  I remember being asked, as a high school TA, whether school gets harder as you get older…and I said something along the lines of, “It does, but you get smarter as you learn how to handle all the new levels and dimensions of detail, and how best to harness your own skills in order to do it.”

(NB: probably was not quite as profound sounding at the time)

Maximising Productivity

Hello all.

So I finally started working in the lab, I have four cancer cell lines going, and they need tending to several times a week. I’m also due to start a set of PCRs and some drug treatments on my cells.

However, technically I’m not in the lab ‘full time’; I still have half an hour/ an hour here and there with which to do other productive stuff. 

Stupidly, I had previously assumed that I could make the most of this time by dipping in and out of reading and writing. I work best when I DON’T try and read for 3 or 4 hours solid, so I thought only having 1/2 an hour or an hour to spare would be a perfect window for reading.

Obviously, my brain doesn’t feel the same way I do, and I am finding it really hard to jump in and out of different focus modes. i.e. don’t stab yourself with a lysing needle – what’s the latest contribution to personalised medicine theory? – don’t put your cells in the waste pot – is this paper worth my attention?…etc.

So, if there is anyone out there, could I get some ideas/ tips/ anecdotes about how to make the most of my ‘spare time’ at work?