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.



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.


Another Milestone

A couple of weeks ago, I completed and passed my PhD confirmation, hooray!

I haven’t had much time to write about it since, and today I didn’t really have any excuses not to (Must. Stop. Watching. Breaking. Bad), so here I am.

In order to successfully “confirm”, I had to write a literature review and project plan and  then present it to a confirmation panel, comprised of external and internal markers.

I wasn’t too nervous about the presentation, because I’d already (successfully and confidently, I might add) presented my data at a local medical research conference just a couple of weeks previous. However, during the week leading up to my confirmation, I had volunteered to go and talk to a class of undergrads about my experiences with bioinformatics. I’d done the same presentation twice before for the same course, and I knew it “wasn’t a big deal”, so I didn’t spend much time preparing. Who can guess what happened next? Yup, I bombed. I stumbled through my slides, couldn’t remember how to say what I needed to say, and got extremely self-conscious. And thus I set myself up for a world of terror for my confirmation.

I knew that all I needed to do to get better at my confirmation presentation was to practise it as many times as physically possible. This was a bit difficult, because the day after the bioinformatics talk, my parents arrived to stay with me for the week. They were REALLY good at giving me space to practise when I needed to, but still, the temptation to go out to dinner and drinks etc. with my parents (who I only really see once or twice a year) instead of staying in to study was pretty overwhelming.

In addition to the constant battle of willpower, every time I did sit down to practise, it was a mission just to make it through the 15 minutes of me talking to myself without stopping to have a panic. Even though with every rehearsal, the words did come easier, I wasn’t any easier on MYSELF. I found myself subconsciously repeating one of my running mantras: “This was never easy and it never will be.” This way, instead of responding to my internal struggles by punishing myself for finding things difficult, I try to remind myself that there’s nothing wrong with something being difficult…and that there isn’t some better version of myself who “should” find things any less difficult than they are.

My friends and colleagues were extremely supportive with helping me to prepare. The time came and, aside from talking a bit too fast at times, everything actually went great. No one booed me off stage or even insinuated that I had no idea what I’m doing. I could answer my questions. 

 In the interview section, I was taken off to a room with my committee, where we discussed my project plan. I started off by trying to answer their questions as though I was in a job interview, but then I got the feeling that they were really just asking me things out of interest, as opposed to checking up on me. Not long after this feeling sunk in, one of the markers asked me what my publication plan was, and why I hadn’t included it in the confirmation document. I knew that I was supposed to include one, and I had known all along. I just chose to ignore it because, as I told the examiner,

“It just doesn’t seem very likely that I’ll get anything worth publishing.”

At first it kind of pissed me off that this this surprised them. What kind of world were THEY living in, where a normal person, like me, would be capable of writing a paper? I actually got quite defensive.  They kept suggesting all sorts of interesting experiments I could do. I agreed, “Yes, that does sound interesting,” whilst at the same time being sure to remind them that, “I don’t think I’ll be able to do that though.”

At the end of the interview, I was asked to leave so that my supervisors could comment on my progress. A couple of minutes later, I was called back in to finalise the confirmation process.

I apologised for my document being so long, and thanked all the markers for their time and patience with me. I was told, in return, that actually my document had been interesting to read, and very well put together. I was told that I clearly had a good comprehension of my material and possessed many of the skills which are important for being a researcher, such as pre-empting questions and being able to ‘sell’ my work. I was told that my research was “novel and important”. I was told that it needed to be published.

I was told that I needed to stop being so hard on myself.

I looked up from the table where I had been fidgeting with my USB from the presentation. My supervisors both looked so proud, as they grinned idiotically at me. Obviously I started to cry. Because that’s what I do.

But, I promise…I really am trying to be more positive!

Dependence Tightrope

I recently overheard a research horror story, so terrifying it may even be worthy of campfires and marshmallows. For now, I guess, we will have to make do without. Feel free to use your imagination though. *hiss, crackle, etc.*

A friend of mine has been working with some clinical samples for about a year now, along with a few others who have been involved for two to three years. One of their main hypotheses regards a group of proteins which should be present in a particular cell type within said sample. After a lot of struggling with nailing down gene expression, let alone protein quantification, they went back to square one to check their collection and storage methods. Lo and behold; the methods the group had been using had rendered their cells of interest inaccessible. The clinical samples they had been gathering over a period of years were worthless for testing their hypothesis.

Now, whose fault all of this is, is debatable. Shouldn’t the supervisor have known better? Shouldn’t the students have double checked? Either way, the horror story demonstrates the extreme skinniness of the line between trusting and questioning your supervisor.

While a good student does as their told, doesn’t a good scientist “question everything”? While this probably shouldn’t be taken too literally (have you ever tried talking while brushing your teeth?!), a PhD student who never ventures beyond the face value of their supervisor’s advice probably isn’t destined for a highly successful career in science. Whether the advice is sound or not, assessing its value is all part and process of doing a PhD (…and, probably: life).

As a naturally inquisitive but also dubious and pessimistic individual, I have literally given myself nightmares about what would happen if my supervisor turned out to be wrong. I am ALWAYS asking questions (most of which start with, “What if…?”), and I can assure you that it’s not good for your well-being. I am constantly left wondering which circumstances are appropriate for me to doubt my supervisor’s advice.

I suppose all I can hope for is that: learning when to ask questions and when to Shut Up  And Get On With It is just one of the many skills that I will develop in the process of obtaining my PhD.

The Specifics of Specificity

This week wasn’t a great one, but, like most weeks of a PhD student, it had its ups and downs.

Towards the end of last week, I attended two seminars by Maria Gardiner, from Thinkwell. The seminars were informative and motivational, and helped me to identify a number of the emotions which had been holding me back previously (anyone heard of Imposter Syndrome?), and try to come terms with them.

I went back to work on Monday with new mantra and a new approach; I could be productive and I was capable. I got stuck into drafting my lit review, finally turning my back on some reading, and instead starting to put those 20,000+ words of notes from the 200+ papers I had been reading into some sort of logical order.

On Tuesday, I attended an Induction Workshop, where we were informed of some basic outlines for our confirmation reports (to include lit review, time-table for the next 2 years, preliminary results etc.). We were told the final document should be between 3000-5000 words. Now, my current draft of my lit review (representing maybe 60% of the total info I had intended for it to contain) stood at 4000 words…

I realised that I had taken the wrong approach. Those 3000-5000 words didn’t have room for ‘waffle’ (in this instance; clinical information, drug development history, non-canonical pathways of my protein/s of interest, disease risk factors…). What I had written so far may have been interesting, but it wasn’t relevant enough. In writing what I had, I had been unconsciously hiding from the fact that; I didn’t have a research question. For all that time I thought I had been productive for, I had actually been procrastinating.

I don’t know how to develop a specific research question.

I don’t know how to judge whether that question is good enough.

Even if I succumb to the notion that the question may work itself out over time, I don’t know what to do with myself in the mean time.