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.

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.

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.

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.

Nerds on the Beach: BCB Retreat 2018

My graduate school has a very general scientific premise. We are the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences; GSBS to those who know us. Everyone who graduates from my school receives a MS or PhD in Biomedical Sciences. Because biomedical sciences encompasses such a diverse array of research areas, students in our graduate school join a scientific program in their first year based on their research project and interests.

Each program dictates which courses students need to take in order to graduate. Programs also provides students with a network of peers and faculty with the school, connected by common research interests.

We have seven scientific graduate programs to choose from: Neuroscience, Quantitative Biosciences, Immunology, Cancer Biology, Therapeutics & Pharmacology, Genetics & Epigenetics, and Biochemistry & Cell Biology (BCB). Based on my interests in regenerative medicine and my project in stem cell biology, I joined BCB.

Each program offers various resources and benefits to students, encouraging both academic and professional development over the course of their degree. In addition, each program hosts an annual retreat where current students and faculty get a chance to present and discuss their research with colleagues in a casual setting, typically off campus.

My program held its retreat this past weekend and we did things a little differetnly this year. On Friday afternoon, we had scientific presentations given by current BCB students, as well as faculty recruiting new students. That evening, most of us drove down to Galveston Island to stay at a few beach houses rented for the weekend. Friday night provided an opportunity for students and faculty to socialize in a relaxed setting, including background sounds of ocean waves.

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BCB student bonding via Cards Against Humanity.

On Saturday, we had a series of small group discussions on various topics including creativity in science, emerging technologies, and making the most of your PhD.

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The Co-Director of our program, Dr. Ilya Leventhal (standing in the Germany soccer jersey), spoke to the students about the importance of creativity and keeping an open mind in science.

That afternoon, we spent a few hours on the beach playing volleyball and relaxing in the sun.

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We gave it our best shot, but we’re definitely more skilled in the lab than on the court.

Many students and faculty left after dinner, but those of us who stayed had another evening of socialization before heading back to Houston in the morning.

I’d estimate that 10+ faculty, 25+ current students, and 10+ first-year students came to Galveston for the retreat. Many more were scheduled to attend, but weather concerns and last-minute homework assignments stopped many students from making the trip.

Overall, the retreat went very well and it seemed that both faculty and students enjoyed themselves. As someone who is still relatively new to the program, I appreciated the chance to meet and get to know faculty and student in a way I hadn’t gotten to before. As PhD students, there aren’t many opportunities to have conversations with faculty about topics completely unrelated to science and research, and I appreciated the opportunity to do so.

The retreat was also a fantastic time for first-year (i.e. new) GSBS students to get to know current BCB students. Program retreats are the most efficient and [hopefully] enjoyable way for new students to determine which program they’re most interested in joining.

Our retreat ended up being just under 48 hours long, allowing students and faculty to recuperate on Sunday before returning to class/lab on Monday. Personally, I’m still recovering. I’ve got some minor sun burns, a truly frustrating number of mosquito bites, blisters on the bottoms of my feet, 3 lbs gained from deliciously unhealthy food & drinks, and many hours of sleep to catch up on… It was totally worth it.

One Year On

Full Disclosure: It is now the third week of the new semester, so this reflection is not exactly one year since starting my PhD, but the sentiment stands.

Many things happened at once when our program began a year ago. Our orientation week was cut short and we missed the first week of classes due to Hurricane Harvey. After that, getting into the classroom mentality took a while because the storm had lasting effects on many of my classmates and professors. While my material possessions fared better, I had survivor’s guilt both during and after the storm because I had gotten through it relatively unscathed while so many others lost everything.

Walking into my PhD program, I knew that I wanted to specialize in Biochemistry & Cell Biology. Coming from an engineering background, I was nervous about taking on such a new curriculum. I was, and still am, intimidated by the level of knowledge and experience that my colleagues have over me. While I know I have learned so much new science in the past year, thinking about how much I have left to learn stresses me out immensely.

I have been able to complete the majority of my required coursework already, with great academic success. Unfortunately, my Impostor’s Syndrome makes it impossible for my grades to feel well-deserved. In my head, my lack of knowledge in certain subjects taught in class will become very apparent during my candidacy/qualifying exam when the committee will have the opportunity to question my knowledge and project for 2+ hours. I hope that what I have learned will be sufficient to pass the exam.

I am proud of the progress that I’ve made in my PhD project, by I certainly finished my 1st year in a place very different from where I’d anticipated. I started the year convinced that I’d spend my PhD working in tissue engineering (stem cells on scaffolds), but have ended up working in stem cell biology (intracellular signals and systems). I am surprised by how happy I am with my project and my lab considering how different they are from what I’d intended.

I am incredibly fortunate to have met, gotten to know, and been able to work with an exceptional group of faculty and students at my institution. Their kindness, generosity, intelligence, humor, and love for their science inspires me every day and reaffirms my confidence the next three generations of medical therapies.

There are certain aspects of my personal and professional development that I know have improved over the past year. While there is still room to grow, my skills and comfort with networking and meeting new people have improved greatly. In addition, I take on more opportunities to push myself out of my comfort zone both socially and professionally. I feel better able to address and manage conflict, and I feel better prepared to manage my own mental health through the trying times ahead.

While I cannot see it yet, I know that there is a light at the end of this PhD tunnel, and I am going towards it as fast as I can. I now have a much better idea of the career paths that interest me and know what I need to do to get there.

There is still work to be done in finding the healthiest balance for my time inside and outside the lab. I still struggle to feel productive from week to week and lose patience in the time required for me to understand new concepts.

For this next year, I want to work on seeing my classmates more often and keeping better in touch with my friends, because we will need each other’s support. I aim to be a PhD candidate by this time next year. I aim to take a vacation and time off whenever possible, so I can keep a clear head. I want to continue to improve at receiving and addressing constructive criticism, because I know I will be hearing a lot of it.

More than anything, I want to continue to love my science and my work because if I lose that, what is the point of doing everything else?

Sam Waterston Cheers
Farewell to my 1st year and best wishes to my 2nd.