Hurry Up And Wait

I first heard the phrase “hurry up and wait” to describe the nature of life for actors on a film set. I was an extra on the set of “Olympus Has Fallen” for one day back in 2012, filming in rural Louisiana. As extras, all of our attention and energy was needed while filming sequences, then we’d stand around waiting while cameras moved around, lighting got adjusted, makeup/fake blood was reapplied, etc.

The phrase refers to activities that require all of your focus for some length of time, immediately followed by another period of time where you have nothing to do, waiting to return to your original task.

Researchers experience “hurry up and wait” during many experiments when all of our attention is needed for a few minutes or hours as we follow a protocol. We then have to wait for a couple hours, days, or weeks, while experimental steps take their course. No matter how much we might want to speed things along, we cannot rush these waiting steps and trying to avoid them can ruin the entire experiment.

Particular protocols are notorious for the frustration evoked during waiting steps, especially for those of us who lack patience and/or are excited about the data to be gathered at the end of an experiment.

Cell culture is my nemesis because it can make planning experiments very difficult. You have to keep a close watch on cells so you can quickly adjust if they aren’t growing as fast or are growing faster than you want. Cell work forces me to keep my schedule flexible so I can be available when they’re ready for an experiment. As a result, it is common for students to make evening or weekend plans, only to have to cancel at the last minute because they’re needed in the lab.

In graduate school, “hurry up and wait” comes in the form of many student’s least favorite requirements of higher learning: writing papers and grants. We spend enormous amounts of time and energy attempting to submit a manuscript for publication or meet a grant deadline, only to then have to wait weeks and months while it gets reviewed. For manuscripts, it’s common to wait months only to get back reviewers’ comments that need to be addressed within a couple weeks in order to continue with submission.

In preparing for my candidacy exam, I’m experiencing “hurry up and wait” with drafts of my written proposal. I work non-stop to finish a proposal draft, then have to wait while the draft get reviewed by colleagues and my adviser. The good news is that once I submit my written proposal, three weeks ahead of my oral exam, I will be done with it until I need to prepare my F31 application (NIH grant) in a couple months.

My biggest problem with the waiting stage is boredom. Immediately after having so much to do, having nothing to do immediately forces you to find other distractions or become very bored. The best of us have multiple projects going on at once and are able to use the waiting periods of one project to accomplish high-focus tasks in another. However, while very efficient, that work ethic can lead to burnout and future problems that would need to be addressed.

For now, I should be using my time in between proposal drafts to work on my presentation, which will need to be in working order for my practice exam next week. Unfortunately, without a strictly impending deadline, distractions are all too easy to find.

**Thank you to Runze Shen for encouraging me to write about “hurry up and wait”**

Am I Ready?

My anxiety levels are extremely high. Last month, I wrote about everything I have to do this summer and now, I’m in the thick of it.

I finished up my experiments last Thursday and we finished packing the lab the following day. That’s not to say that my experiments gave me all of the data I was hoping for and some protocols still need polishing, but I set a specific end point so I could transition 100% of my attention to my candidacy exam. My experiments and my cells will still be there, but I really only get one shot at passing candidacy and I don’t want to screw it up.

My advisor is doing her best to make sure I am able to focus my attention on finishing my written proposal, due in 2 weeks, but I’ve needed to go into lab to help set up the new lab space. We’ve got two new postdocs coming in as well, one of which has already started. I’m excited for them to join our lab, but I need to prioritize my candidacy responsibilities.

I submit my written proposal in two weeks and hope to practice my presentation (given as part of the oral exam) later the same week. Practicing your presentation and the questioning thereafter is incredibly valuable because other students in the program have gone through this same experience. These students offer advice and ask questions to quiz your background knowledge on your project’s components. The earlier you start practicing, the more time you have brush up on concepts you didn’t know you’d forgotten (or needed to know).

I’m trying to set intermediate, attainable goals for myself, so that I don’t feel extremely rushed at the end. This is not something I can procrastinate or avoid. But when I try to go to sleep at night, my mind won’t shut up about everything that needs to be completed or hypotheticals about what could happen if I don’t get things done.

I have scheduled activities for myself to do immediately after completing my candidacy exam but they haven’t turned into the “light at the end of the tunnel” I was hoping they would be. Scheduling activities for immediately after means that I can’t bail on my set exam date or postpone anything.

I feel like I felt when I was buying my house. In between having my offer accepted and closing on the house, I signed paperwork, agreed to spend the majority of my life savings, and took on extensive financial risk and responsibility. I wanted to bail so many times because it all felt like too much.

I keep thinking about how much easier life would be if I ditched my PhD program and took a “normal” job among the masses outside academia, but I’m too stubborn for that.

I love my research. I’m here for the research and the people. I just have to get through these next 5 weeks, but that seems so far off.

Once my written proposal is done, I will finish my presentation, then I will compete in our program’s showcase of graduate student research, then I will devote [as close to] 100% of my time to preparing for the actual exam, then I will finally take my exam.

I’m definitely not ready now and I doubt I will feel ready before the exam.

However, I’m ready to stop feeling this way. I’m ready to not have my anxiety interrupt my sleep. I’m ready to go back to being patient with friends and coworkers. I’m ready to go back to feeling like I won’t burst out in tears at any moment. I’m ready to stop feeling like a moron who doesn’t belong because I don’t know everything I should know.

I’m ready to go back to the way things were.

The Cost of Calm

“Whoever said money can’t solve your problems,
Must not have had enough money to solve ’em”
-Ariana Grande, “7 Rings”

With mental health struggles so prevalent for graduate students, graduate programs and support networks are putting extra emphasis on mental health awareness.

My graduate program offers workshops and counseling to its students, providing training and information about the resources available within our institution. I have attended workshops on meditation, the importance of being aware of your own mental health, and mentally preparing for big presentations. The university’s recreation center also offers yoga classes, for a small monthly fee.

We’re taught that daily factors affecting your mental health include diet, sleep schedule, human contact/communication, and work load. To a certain extent, we have control over most of those elements. However, when we lose control over the last one, work load, we must find an outlet.

Every student is different in the way(s) we manage our stress. It is up to us to determine our preferred coping mechanism.

Some seek professional services through counseling or therapy. Some find solace in support networks on social media. Some keep journals to put words to everything swirling inside their heads.

While I do some writing, I, and many others, prefer more active pursuits. Some of us make regular trips to the gym, others go to yoga or meditation classes to clear their heads. A couple of my classmates take pole dancing classes and highly recommend them. A few other students sing in a local choir or play in an orchestra.

I know others who have taken up boxing or gymnastics, empowering activities which require a completely different skill set from what is utilized for their research.

All of this is to say that students exploit highly varied outlets to separate themselves from their work and take care of their mental health. Unfortunately, many of these endeavors cost a decent amount of money, making them not accessible for every student who wants to participate.

I grew up in an incredibly thrifty family. Both of my parents paid their own ways through university because their families did not have the means to do so. For them, growing up without money meant that when you had it, you saved it. I was raised with that mentality and, as a result, spending any amount of money over $50 is a mental hurdle, especially for things that I don’t “need”.

I recently started taking yoga classes at a studio near my house. These classes are more expensive than the ones offered through my university’s rec center, but they’re more varied and conveniently timed. With a student discount, classes cost $85/month. This may not sound like a lot of money to some, but to someone making $32,000/year and already paying a mortgage in addition to normal monthly expenses, $85/month can be a fair chunk of change.

This fee for classes is, admittedly, pretty low compared to more selective options (i.e. offered in fewer locations), like boxing or gymnastics. In addition, stipends in our program are very generous for PhD students, but expenses beyond necessities are a struggle.

The mental hurdle I had to jump to get here was that I don’t “need” to take these classes. I could stretch at home, I could go to my rec center’s classes, or I could find a different outlet that didn’t come with a monthly fee.

My instinct to not spend money is so ingrained that it risks my overall well-being. I have to convince myself that the cost of the activity is worth the benefit I will get out of the activity. Even then, I ask for a free trial period to take as much time as possible before I put any money on the table.

It is likely that my mental obstacle courses are particular to me, but I know that concerns over personal finances are common with grad students. I worked for a few years before grad school so I have a safety net. Many other students aren’t so fortunate. They started grad school immediately after undergrad, with no savings or are financially responsible for family members/children.

These are struggles we handle individually, prioritizing where best to spend the money we have. Increasing graduate student stipends would be a welcome financial relief, but that is not a path likely to be taken with increased tightening of research budgets. I would like to see better education for students interested in budgeting their finances, and greater acknowledgement of the funds needed by each student to find and pursue their own outlets for mental health security.

Planning to be Overwhelmed

For most students, across all levels of education, the summer represents a time for relaxation and recovery away from school and class responsibilities. Particularly responsible students may hold a summer job to earn some money and occupy their time. Graduate students don’t get that luxury. We work year-round, whether in class, in the lab/doing research, or gaining valuable job experience through external (outside the university) internships.

As grad students, we can’t stop being productive and I have no desire to put off necessary tasks until our academic year starts anew in August. My next big milestone towards my PhD is called a candidacy examination. The candidacy exam is a comprehensive evaluation of a PhD student’s ability to undertake a doctoral research project.

For my program, candidacy includes a six page written proposal detailing your planned experiments and the knowledge you expect to gain, in addition to a 20-25 minute presentation on your project. The written proposal must be submitted three weeks before your exam. On the day of your exam, your presentation is followed by 2-3 hours of questioning meant to assess your knowledge on the biological and experimental principles involved in you project.

At the end of your exam, a committee of six faculty members determines whether you receive an unconditional pass (no additional work needed), a conditional pass (some additional work needed), a re-take (a lot of additional work needed & take exam again), or a fail (most likely will remove you from the program). Re-takes and failures are extremely rare (one every ~10 years), but these are incredibly stressful for students both during the exam and in the weeks leading up to it.

I am currently preparing for my exam, which will occur sometime in the 2nd week of July. We are told to allot six weeks to complete all necessary components for candidacy though, in truth, preparations begin long before that.

As of now, I know who will be on my exam committee, the outline of my project, the information necessary to write my proposal and make my presentation, and the timeline of when things need to be submitted.

Some hard deadlines exist to keep us on track through this process, but I need soft deadlines as well to pace myself. I don’t want to burn out before I even walk into the exam room.

Right now, the only thing I need to do is submit paperwork asking permission to take my exam, though that is being delayed by the required 10+ signatures from faculty, who don’t necessarily respond to requests as promptly as you’d like them to.

In the weeks before my exam, I will be submitting my written proposal, practicing my presentation and receiving feedback from other students/faculty, and (hopefully) meeting with the faculty on my exam committee to gauge their reactions to my proposal.

Unfortunately, my candidacy exam is not the only thing I’m working on this summer. I will also be competing in the elevator pitch (if I get past the prelims) and poster presentation competitions in my graduate school’s annual Student Research Day at the end of June. I’m not stressing yet about the elevator pitch competition because I have to be chosen by my program first before I’ll be allowed to compete during Research Day.

For the poster presentation, I’ve laid out the data I want to include and the story it would tell but, unfortunately, I don’t have any of the data yet and will be working my tail off over the next couple months to get that work done.

My experiments have a natural pace to them, including down time while cells are growing, followed by chaos when setting up multiple analysis techniques at the same time. This predictable pacing allows me to know when I can study for my exam or continue writing my proposal, and when I need to prioritize my time for experiments. I will need to have all of my experiments completed a week before Research Day so have time to design the poster and send it out for printing.

Colleagues, especially faculty, keep telling me that I’ll get through this process fine. I believe them, but I’d rather over-prepare than under-prepare. However this turns out, I’ve already told my PI that I’ll be going on vacation for a couple weeks after my candidacy exam. On that trip, I’ll either be celebrating, sleeping, or looking for a new job.

Self-Awareness in Depression

I have chronic anxiety and periodic depression. My anxiety is rooted in my schoolwork, research, and other aspects of my professional life. My depression is brought on by pain in my person life.

Over the past few weeks, I have been struggling through a breakup from someone I really cared about. The reasons for the breakup will stay between him and I, but I want to be open about how it’s affect me and what I’ve been going through.

When I am depressed, I can’t tell my own feelings, especially the pleasant ones. It’s like there is a fog hiding my happiness and positive emotions from me, so that I can’t access them. I can laugh and smile, but those emotions are only genuine for an instant.

I don’t have the energy or desire to do optional activities. Even though I love cooking and it normally grounds me, depression makes me only go for easy-access food. My poor diet and incessant mental wanderings make it very difficult to fall asleep. Problems compound when I need to be in the lab early in the morning after having only slept for 3 hours. As I’ve written before, I get frustrated when personal life struggles bleed into my professional life.

I think that the people who I’m closest to can tell that something is wrong but I’ve never been fully open with them about what is happening. I think this is partly because I know they have their own problems and partly because I can’t explain things fully to myself, let along someone else. It’s far easier to isolate myself from others and attempt to occupy myself with why I’m upset.

I’m now self-aware enough to know what is happening to me. I can’t do anything to make it go away – only time can do that – but I have some activities that offer a temporary respite.

Trips to the gym for cardio-intensive workouts facilitate endorphin releases that alleviate some of the mental burden. Fresh fruits and vegetables are a godsend. They are easy-access foods, but are far more nutritional than anything in the pantry. Plus, bingeing on these foods are far less likely to lead to undesired weight gain.

My final tool used to make myself feel better is to be honest with myself about what I’m going through. Putting my thoughts and emotions into words is an underrated way to move forward. Words mean that I can explain things to myself and others. As much as I may want to run away from what I’m going through, I can’t.

I plan to start seeing a counselor this week, which will likely become a regular occurrence leading up to my candidacy exam in a couple months. I need to be honest with myself that I will have a much healthier and easier time if I don’t try to go through this alone.

The good news is that I can feel the fog lifting. I cooked for the first time in a few weeks and am looking forward to activities that I’ve been avoiding. I am taking the right steps to get past this, but a need a little more time.

Research is a Recipe

I don’t think of my research as being daunting. Interesting, challenging, and frustrating, but not daunting. However, conversations with people outside of research makes it seem like that is how everyone else perceives our work. I think that perception is part of the reason so few people try out research programs in school or enter research professions later on.

As I see it, research experiments, at least in a wet lab (i.e. bench-top) setting are recipes. Anyone who can cook can perform research and vice versa.

Whereas cooks have recipes in order to make food, experiments have protocols, a sequential list of instructions that lead to results which could answer a research question. Whereas recipes have ingredients, protocols have chemicals, compounds, and solutions that must be combined together, in the correct order, to get the results you’re looking for.

Good cooks can follow a recipe, great cooks can manipulate the recipe for the better. They understand how the ingredients taste individually and together, how they contribute to each other, and how they can be used to generate a desired dish or flavor profile.

Great researchers work the same way. They understand how each chemical, compound, and solution react with each other and how they are necessary to answer a particular question.

This level of understanding enables the cook or the researcher to change the recipe or the protocol to correct any imperfections or improve upon the product/results.

In cooking, you produce delicious food, benefiting the consumer’s stomach. In research, you produce knowledge, benefiting the consumer’s mind.

Anybody can do research, but the most creative minds excel. Understand the fundamentals and you can create dishes that no one has ever tasted, or answer questions no one has ever considered.

Talking Science

The term “science communication” gets thrown around a lot in my world. It is most commonly used in one of two contexts: (1) during scientific training/education while stressing the importance of being able to communicate your research to individuals outside your field or (2) a potential career to pursue after finishing your degree. While use of “science communication” in these circumstances is perfectly valid, I think it undervalues the professional diversity of those who participate in science communication. Here, I present three distinct types of science communicators, their functions, their messages, and their backgrounds.

To start with, a common career path for scientists interested in communications is to become a science writer. Science writers frequently work for a media company (print, online, etc.) or are freelance journalists/authors who write about complex scientific concepts for a general non-scientific audience. I like to think of them as science translators.

Science writers tend to have some university-level background in science, but whose stand-out skill lies in their ability to boil down complex concepts into simple terms and analogies. They no longer perform original research but build and maintain networks of scientists about whose work they try to get the public excited and interested. Most impressively, science writers are uniquely tasked with coherently and accurately describing scientific fields in which they may have minimal to no background.

I find it more difficult to remember the names of specific science writers (unless they’ve authored a particularly noteworthy book), but they do well at leaving the reader with specific tidbits of information.

The most easily recognizable (i.e. widest audience) scientific communicator is the science presenter. These individuals are typically charismatic scientists who have been determined to have a marketable face and can make science sound interesting/fascinating to almost anyone. I like to think of these few individuals as science celebrities.

Science presenters have names you recognize, including Bill Nye, Professor Brian Cox, and Neil deGrasse Tyson (I know this last one has some scandal associated with it right now). While they are very good about getting non-scientific people excited about science, they aren’t known for educating the average person about specific scientific concepts/principles. They say something that makes you say “woah, that’s cool”, then instantly forget what was just said.

While science presenters ordinarily hold at least one position at a scientific institution, they aren’t best known for performing original research.

Science celebrities have the vital, difficult responsibility of getting the average Joe/Jane excited about science, with the aim that Joe/Jane ventures out to learn more for themselves.

The most populated type of science communicator is the scientist who can communicate. Their role is science communication is exactly how it sounds: their primary responsibility is to perform research in their niche scientific field, but they also have the invaluable skill of communicating their work to diverse audiences. I like to think of these amazing individuals as next-gen scientists, meaning that these are what science trainees should aim to become.

Earning a PhD confers expertise in a particular field, so these scientists predominantly hold terminal degrees from respected institutions and work as faculty at universities or federal organizations. Their names aren’t yet widely known outside specialty fields, but their popularity is growing due to their presence on social media (namely Twitter and Instagram).

While scientists who can communicate focus much of their communication on the field(s) that they actively work in, they can adapt their messages to the audience, narrowing in on the nitty-gritty details or presenting a 10,000 foot view of their field. This is the category of science communicators that I am most excited about because they allow members of the public direct access to the most cutting-edge science.

Excitingly, there are some impressive individuals who are blurring the lines between these types of communicators, resulting in all scientific fields becoming more accessible to the public. I only hope that members of the public trust us enough to believe what we say.

Herding Hemingway’s Cats: Understanding How Our Genes Work by Kat Arney

I have known of Dr. Kat Arney for a long time. My parents have been friends with her aunt and uncle for as long as I can remember. When I moved to London to work on my master’s degree, I was put in touch with Kat and her sister, Helen. Both sisters are very British (a good thing), very nerdy (also a good thing), and work in science communication. **I also highly recommend looking into Helen’s work with Festival of the Spoken Nerd**

In my time in London, I was fortunate enough to meet Helen and see FOTSN perform. However, Kat was very busy at her job with Cancer Research UK and, as it turns out, writing her book, “Herding Hemingway’s Cats: Understanding How Our Genes Work”, which was published in 2016.

kat arney book 1

I’ve had this book on my reading list for a while, but only recently picked it up. My background is definitely not in genetics, but recent classes have educated me significantly and renewed my interest in the field. I am still not an expert in the field, but I believe I know enough to recommend this book as both a scientist and bookworm.

Herding Hemingway’s Cats reads like an understated scientific discourse, surely reflecting Dr. Arney’s time as a doctoral student at Cambridge University. Kat beautifully weaves principles of genetics/epigenetics and her conversations with the researchers who discovered these principles.

As a scientist, I loved Kat’s writing style because it felt like I was eavesdropping on a couple people talking science. I find conversations about science to be fascinating, invigorating, inspiring, and educational, even if you don’t understand everything that is discussed.

Kat is honest about disagreements in the field and presents researchers’ opposing viewpoints where relevant. I also love that she featured the voices of researchers both widely known and those that may be less well-known, but still worth finding out about. The tone of the entire book is conversational and welcoming while still diving into some of the gritty details of our genome.

Overall, the book does a good job of presenting complex genetic concepts with simplified analogies to make impossible small phenomena easier to visualize. I occasionally got lost in the volume of information the book was presenting, making it slightly difficult to keep focus, but those sections were few and far between.

In my opinion, this book will be best received by individuals with some scientific background or interest. Having a university-level education in biology certainly helped me understand 99% of the presented discussions and concepts.

Though it has nothing to do with the quality of this book or the science, this book reads like it is for a British audience. This completely makes sense, as Dr. Arney is British and has been writing for a British audience for over a decade now. Her British colloquialisms made me chuckle and feel like I was back in London, if only for a moment.

Kat published her second book last year, which is already on my “to read” list, and I’m excited to see what she can teach me next.

A Story A Day

As the end of the semester, this past week included unexpected adventures, unavoidable hurdles, and delightful surprises. In its culmination last night, I knew I needed to write everything down to make sense of it all and thought I might share it with anyone vaguely interested/willing to listen. My next few posts, which will be posted periodically over the coming few days, are a brief account of what happened this past week.

Sunday

I had spent the majority of the day working on my Bioinformatics final project. As is common, I had dinner with my parents that evening and on the way back to our cars, my mother reminded me to find my passport for vacation the following week. In the back of my mind, I had known that I needed to find this document, but had kept shoving it down the back of my mind as something to deal with later. Suddenly, “later” became “a week before we leave”.

After returning home, I checked my usual important document storage place in my house but didn’t find my passport there. It sank in quickly that I truly had no idea where it was, but denied this fact for the next hour by going through my entire house in the feeble hopes that the little voice in the back of my head was wrong. It wasn’t.

I texted my mother, admitting my faults, who then sent me the information for two different local services touting a very fast turn around time for individuals seeking a passport at the last minute (i.e. 24 hour turn around, compared to the 8 weeks required by the federal government). I chose between these services and sent off my information to be reviewed at the start of business Monday morning.

The fact that I stayed relatively calm throughout the evening truly shocked me, but I’m thankful I was able to keep a level head.

Monday

The morning started off normal with my weekly meeting with my advisor, who I told of my passport woes and seemed far more worried about it than I was. We quickly went through my lab business of the week: data I couldn’t yet explain, experiments I needed to rerun after the holidays, and the rundown of the presentation I was to give to our colleagues the following day.

Soon after, my father came by the lab to drop off my birth certificate, so I roped him into chauffeuring me around downtown so I didn’t have to take these all-too-important documents on public transportation. One of the advantages to my father being retired is that he’s a softy, and now has the time help me out with whatever I need, of which I take full advantage.

We went by the civil courthouse downtown and I took care of my business inside while my father drove around for a few minutes because parking was scarce. There should really be more signs around the courthouse directing visitors because the unfortunate men sitting at the security desk seemed very annoyed with having to give the same directions to newcomers every day. After finishing there, we dropped off the remaining paperwork with the magician who could get my new passport within 24 hours. It turns out the the U.S. State Department contracts out the ability for companies to make a certain number of passports a day. Those desperate enough (which I was) can utilize their services for the hefty price of $500+, including federal and local fees.

**Continued on A Story A Day: Part 2**

Beaten Down

While it’s been an unspoken truth for decades, much recent attention has been paid to shedding light on the significant numbers of graduate students, specifically PhD students, who suffer from anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders. However, news of our high rates of mental health problems comes as no shock to any PhD student.

My program has worked to address these issues by educating its students on the university-provided resources available to them including counseling, ombudsmen (mediators), and seminars teaching stress-relief techniques. While these resources are invaluable and I’m grateful to be part of a generation of researchers and students willing to support each other and talk about these still-taboo subjects, I haven’t heard much discussion about why PhD students, in particular, struggle so much.

Some causes for stress are pretty well known and analogous to careers outside scientific fields (or STEM fields, in general). These include pressure from advisers/PIs (i.e. crappy bosses) to get work done and the need to publish – commonly referred to as “publish or perish – in order to graduate (i.e. measurable work output).

One aspect of scientific and laboratory work, that happens to be a running joke amongst insiders but may not be widely well known to everyone else, is that failure is an overwhelming part of our job. I would estimate that in biomedical research, >90% of experiments fail for one of a dozen (or more) reasons.

That’s why, when trying to determine why an experiment failed or yielded unexpected results, it can take a long time and multiple attempts to get the experiment working. And then, that beautiful moment when you know you’ve got an experiment working can be thrown off the rails by results that aren’t what you expected or contradict your central hypothesis. Unexpected or contradictory results then have to be explained with new scientific hypotheses and additional experiments.

Good scientists will check and recheck their results with different experiments, under different conditions to validate their findings. But it’s all too easy to stop once you’ve gotten the results you were expecting, even if it’s one of the times something went wrong.

As PhD students, we take the brunt of this failure. We are the ones who can’t make our bosses happy when things don’t work. If things don’t work, we can’t publish, if we don’t publish, we can’t get funding, if we can’t get funding, the research stops and we will all be out of jobs. On top of all that, we, PhD students, would fail to graduate, making everything we’d done null and void. That’s a lot to put on someone 22-30 years old.

And yet, we do it. We continue to come into the lab, continue to perform experiments, and continue to generate results. It doesn’t simply suck when our experiments fail, it can physically hurt. We are emotionally invested in our research, which makes our failures all the more painful but our successes all the more joyous.

We celebrate our successes whenever they occur, but they are few and far between. Is it any wonder that so many of us suffer from anxiety and depression? We are highly intelligent, skilled, and [predominantly] altruistic individuals who are regularly beaten down by the pursuit of knowledge and the science we love.

Unfortunately, there’s no overt solution to stop graduate students from having mental health problems. We can’t stop our advisers from feeling pressure and transferring it onto us. We can’t stop experiments from failing.

Our work takes time, patience, and resilience. You have to walk into each experiment as if it will work, even if the odds are stacked against you. The pain from failure never goes away.

Our job is to get back up, figure out what went wrong, try something different, and always keep fighting.

Inherent Creativity in Science & Tech

I recently finished reading another book recommended by a career/professional development specialist. This one, titled “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future” by Daniel H. Pink, presents evidence of why “left-brained” jobs are becoming obsolete (in the U.S.A.) and recommends skills that can be developed for individuals in those careers to become more “right-brained”.

While “left-brained” and “right-brained” are not physiologically accurate (pretty much everything we do requires both hemispheres of our brain), the author uses these terms to describe the amount of creativity required to do that job. Examples of left-brained jobs given include lawyers, accountants, and software engineers. While I cannot speak to the day-to-day activities of lawyers or accountants, as I have no experience with those professions, I can speak a fair bit to the skills required to be a software engineer/programmer.

My Bachelor’s degree is in Biomedical Engineering, which required me to take courses in Java & MATLAB programming. The book’s author on a couple occasions also categorized science as a left-brained field. Based on my experiences in the science and tech, I fundamentally disagree with Pink’s assertion that people in scientific and technical fields lack creativity.

I hope that Pink’s beliefs that science and tech don’t inherently require creativity is due to an insufficient understanding, rather than willful ignorance, or what those fields entail. Generally speaking, scientists and programmers are presented with a problem and tasked with discovering or creating a solution. In the case of science, unsolved problems include climate change, limited natural resources, everything we don’t yet know about the human brain, and countless others. In software programming, unsolved problems may include incorporating a new feature into a larger existing software package or creating the next big social media app.

**I apologize that the relative significance of the example problems given for science and tech are starkly contrasting, but I am not personally familiar with the big-picture questions programmers are trying to answer. Feel free to educate me in them.**

Ultimately, the solutions to all of these problems will require creativity to both think up and design experiments to test the solutions. In science, we use experiments to answer small parts of a larger question. It requires creativity and intelligence to think of the fastest and most accurate ways to answer our question given a limited number of resources (e.g. money, time, personnel, equipment, etc.). In programming, they use different coding languages and progressive logic to come up with solutions to their problems.

Two different programmers given the same problem are highly unlikely to write the exact same code as a solution. Both will be able to understand what happens in each line of code and how that contributes to the outputted solution, just as scientists understand how each experiment answers a small part of the larger question.

I would also like to note that especially good experimental designs and software code are commonly described using the same terminology as is used for art and music: elegant, cohesive, balanced, creative, complementary, imaginative, etc. This is not a coincidence.

I found reading Daniel Pink’s superficial assessment of science and tech to be especially frustrating because, while the book is not new (it was first published in 2005), I’m sure that many people outside these fields hold the same misunderstandings of what kinds of people do well in science and tech. I want creatively-minded free-thinkers to know that they have a place in science and tech, and are very likely to thrive here. Even more so, if they don’t already, I want scientists and programmers to recognize and celebrate how creative they really are.

I Make People Uncomfortable

I recognize that I have an imposing stature. I am 5’11” (1.80 m) tall and was, up until a year ago, fairly overweight. Outside my family, I grew up surrounded by people who were smaller than me. Between my size and my love of school, I became a social outcast at a very young age. I had friends, but I never really felt accepted. I didn’t find a group of people who I connected with until my junior year of high school and I am still very close with them to this day. Unfortunately, my social awkwardness has never gone away.

I don’t mean to, but I intimidate people. I cannot hide my size, I maintain an athletic physique, and I don’t hide my intelligence. Growing up, it wasn’t cool to be smart, especially for girls. I tried to hide my intelligence for a short while but quickly realized I would never be “cool”, so I moved on and did my own thing. I, like most people growing up, tried to change things about myself to be more likable. It wasn’t until the past couple years that I truly embraced my awkwardness, focusing my energy on becoming person I wanted to be, rather than who everyone else wanted me to be.

I am not good at small talk. I find it to be an inefficient form of communication. However, I recognize that it is necessary for general social interactions, so I deal with it for as short a time as possible. I love talking to people, I just prefer to have meaningful conversations because I find those foster the interpersonal connections that lead to genuine, lasting friendships.

As a result, I have very little hesitation about bringing up topics that have made other people uncomfortable. These topics commonly include politics, religion, philosophy, morals, and personal information. I share my perspective for every topic I bring up, so it is never a one-sided conversation, nor do I every want it to feel like I’m interrogating the person I’m speaking with.

Recently, the conversation topics that make people visibly clench are feminism, women’s rights, and sexual assault. Not that those topics were regularly discussed before, but their presence in the news has people extremely on edge. That hasn’t stopped me. I want to know what people think. I want to know who in my life is paying attention to it and who is choosing to stay out of it. For the latter, I want know why those people don’t want to be informed or have an opinion.

I recognize that there’s a lot to keep up with, but I think it’s incredibly important to stay informed and have an opinion that can be defended.

No matter how difficult the conversation, I want people to know that they can talk to me about anything. I do my best to express my opinion without judgement or accusation, but my perspective is relative to my own experiences. More importantly, I respect that others have had different experiences from me.

The more people are willing to have uncomfortable conversations, the more normalized those topics become. Maybe if these topics were normalized, people wouldn’t be afraid to express their opinions, tell their truths, or share their stories.

Time, Love, Memory by Jonathan Weiner

Based on the recommendation from one of my professors, I recently finished this wonderful book by Jonathan Weiner. “Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior” beautifully walks the line between scientific and journalistic writing. It is the rare breed of book which is very well written and easy to understand, without losing the integrity of its scientific discussions.

Time, Love, Memory Book

“Time, Love, Memory” presents the stories of a series of scientists, centered around Dr. Seymour Benzer, who used fruit flies (Drosophila Melanogaster) to decipher genes which help to program flies’ internal clocks, sexual preferences, personalities, and appearances. Over many decades, Dr. Benzer and his colleagues pioneered the field of molecular biology, discovering dozens of genes in Drosophila with human homologues (equivalences, though not necessarily for the same function).

Drosophila were an ideal animal model to perfom these scientific experiments and make these discoveries as they are genetically [relatively] uncomplicated, small, proliferative (they reproduce quickly), and each to take care of/maintain. The techniques Dr. Benzel designed to start to unlock their genetic codes are still considered to be mind-boggling in their elegance and simplicity. Reader of “Time, Love, Memory” should also respect how much patience, perserverance, and dedication it took Dr. Benzer and his colleagues to make these discoveries.

I especially love how the author discusses the interpersonal relationships of the scientists. It is rare that non-fiction science literature put so much emphasis on humanizing the scientists without detracting from the significance of the science. I wish more writing on scientific discoveries put that kind of effort into painting the faces behind the science.

This is the style of scientific writing that I envy and I sincerely hope to one day be able to write about my own research in such a widely comprehensible manner.

People Over Politics

I have never been sexually assaulted or raped. I have been harassed, stalked, and patronized, but nothing that has given me nightmares; just the nature of being female.

There are probably many reasons why I haven’t been the target of a sexual predator (anyone who commits assault/rape is a predator), but any justification of my good fortune, I feel, removes responsibility from the attacker. For too long, it’s been the victim’s fault for putting themselves in a potentially harmful situation, rather than the predator’s fault for committing the act.

While I don’t have first-hand knowledge of such trauma, I have watched the toll its taken on close friends. I have done my best to help them, in the seemingly feeble ways I could: I listened, I supported, and most importantly, I believed them.

It’s been strange for me to watch everything unfold since the Harvey Weinstein scandal and resulting #metoo movement because I don’t understand why so many people don’t believe the victims. What’s worse is the backlash victims face when they do have the strength to come forward and seek justice. I can’t fathom how anyone can witness the aftermath of sexual violence/trauma on the victims and not believe them, let alone ridicule or threaten them for coming forward.

My issues with specific people’s reaction to and treatment of victims has reached a new level of concern when watching how politicians have reacted to and treated the accuser(s) of Brett Kavanaugh. Responses have ranged from refusing to believe them, patronizing the victim(s) by suggesting they must be confused or “mixed up”, to wholy ignoring the accusation(s) for the sake of politics.

All of this leaves me wondering about where we, as a society stand. Where is the moral/ethical line in the sand about how we treat people and what behavior will we permit, and what accusations/actions cannot be ignored? At what point does someone’s character and actions outside the job preclude their ability to do or warrant their removal from said job?

I am choosing not to discuss the legal/justice system’s role and responsibility to treat victims fairly and respectfully, because that, as it exists, is a different kind of disappointment.

I am addressing my concerns to politicians, political pundits, and members of the public who are prioritizing politics over people. What will it take for victims to be taken seriously, recognized respectfully, and treated fairly?