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.

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.

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.