When to Stop Reading & Start Working

As a PhD student taking on a new research project, I have spent much of my time the past few months reading and learning about an unfamiliar scientific field. My work/time is funded by a NIH grant recently awarded to my advisor, so the foundation of what I will be studying has been thoroughly laid out for me.

My primary task in reading scientific literature has been to understand the significance and justification for the experiments my advisor proposed in her grant. However, my advisor has (very rightly) encouraged me to come up with additional/alternative experiments to perform, based on my literature reading.

The opportunity to propose my own experiments is a necessary skill for me to develop as part of my doctoral training. It also helps me to feel like I am intellectually contributing to my own project, rather than simply completing tasks and experiments my advisor has designed. This is the hallmark difference between a research scientist (with a PhD) and a research technician (without).

In addition, reading into peripheral research in our field not discussed in her grant allows my advisor to become more familiar with others’ new and exciting work. While there are some selfish motives in biomedical research, the ultimate goal of our work is to benefit patients, so we always want to pursue the best research hypotheses, even if they are different from ones we have already come up with.

My current dilemma is that there are so many new and exciting research ideas in the literature, I’m struggling to decide which I should pursue in my limited time here. Furthermore, as there are new papers published every week/month, how do you know when to stop focusing on reading and start performing experiments?

I’m not saying that I would stop reading entirely, as it is too important to always be familiar with the cutting edge research in your field. I have thus far been unable to find the line where I have come up with enough connected unanswered questions that I can stop developing new questions and start finding answers to the ones I’ve already got.

I know that I will need to work with my advisor to choose which questions to answer, but as someone who doesn’t like to leave questions unanswered, it is frustrating to know that I will only have time to pursue a finite number of questions in my time as a PhD student. I suppose that is why people spend their entire careers in academic biomedical research.

Which Words Don’t Matter?

Scientific writing is of paramount importance to any researcher looking to communicate, disseminate, seek funding for, and convey the importance of their work. The phrase “publish or perish” has become a mantra for a reason, though scientific writing extends far beyond publishing your research.

Writing is a process involving multiple chances to improve the writing and target the message for its intended audience, through edits. Scientific editing is a test of pride and ego for the author, one which I struggle with.

While most people, even outside scientific fields, are familiar with the concepts of publishing research and even applying for funding through grants, scientific writing can also include press releases, mass media articles, and blog posts. Each of these types of scientific writing involves different styles (e.g. informative, persuasive) and amounts of scientific jargon.

While I’ve worked on most types of writing mentioned, I’ve mainly been responsible for editing other people’s work. The fellowship applications I submitted this past fall were the first time I was fully responsible for writing a research proposal for a scientific audience. I allotted plenty of time in my application preparation to allow for multiple revisions, including edits by mentors and colleagues. Unfortunately, planning ahead didn’t help me when I had a 2.5 page research plan that was only allowed 2 pages of space.

In my quest to shorten the document, I met with a mentor who has been working in academic research for more than 20 years. She pointed out that as scientists, we like to think that all of our words are significant, but in editing, our challenge is to choose which words don’t matter or contribute nothing to the sentence’s purpose. She proceeded to go through one of my paragraphs and delete two or three words in each sentence, shortening the paragraph by two lines. I was baffled, insulted, and impressed at the same time.

In my editing work, I had thrown away other people’s words with such nonchalance, but never watched it happen to my words. Witnessing the destruction made me think back to how previous colleagues had reacted badly when I removed entire paragraphs of detail from their research proposals due to space constraints and consideration of the reviewer’s point of view.

As it turns out, I have absolutely no problem editing other people’s writing, but I struggle with editing my own. I find it incredibly difficult to decide which of my words contribute nothing, as each deletion seems to chip away at my pride. Writing is a struggle for me, it always has been, but I have gotten better at it through years of practice. I don’t like the idea that something I’ve struggled to write can be disposed of so easily.

As a potential pseudo-solution, I recently discovered that I tend to forget what I’ve written. I’m hoping that this will remove my ego from the editing process. If I write something far enough ahead of a deadline, I will allow myself enough time to forget what I’ve written and can then go back to the writing as if I was editing someone else’s work. I understand that this may require extensive planning ahead, but I’m willing to do so if it facilitates an objective assessment of my writing.

In time, I want to be able to edit my writing without tricking myself into thinking it’s another’s work. I expect that editing my work will become easier with more practice and with the ability to separate my ego from my work.

Starting at a Sprint

Completing a PhD is like running a marathon. You can approach it as a race and attempt to finish first, or you can merely focus on finishing. You can change up your pace, run for a cause, run with someone else, and/or stop for a water/bathroom breaks. Instead of pacing myself in anticipation of the long road ahead, I feel like I have started my PhD at a sprint.

I joined the lab of Dr. Pamela Wenzel at the UTHealth Center for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine about a month ago. Within a few weeks of starting my rotation in Dr. Wenzel’s lab, I knew that was where I wanted to stay. Our lab has multiple research projects going on right now involving cancer, traumatic brain injury, stem cell therapy, and hematopoeisis. However, our lab only consists of 4-5 people at the moment, requiring everyone to be involved in multiple projects so that we can keep up with the workload.

My dissertation project will attempt to define the role of fluid shear stress (i.e. blood flow) on the differentiation of hemogenic endothelial cells into hematopoietic stem cells, and the intracellular signaling pathways involved in this phenomenon. Hematopoietic stem cells supply the body with blood cells and immune cells, so they are pivotal in maintaining homeostasis, the body’s healthy balance, throughout life. If we can understand how these stem cells develop, we can use those pathways to create stable hematopoietic stem cells for clinical use as cell therapies.

I am incredibly excited about this project because it’s a stem cell population I’ve not worked with before, and it will utilize my engineering background studying fluid shear stress in conjunction with the cell signaling knowledge I am gaining in my current coursework.

Unfortunately, due to our lab’s multitude of projects, I have not yet had time to become familiar with the literature necessary for my project, let alone start planning experiments. All hands on deck have been utilized to perform the final experiments and data analysis necessary before a couple manuscripts can be submitted for publication.

I spent my first few weeks in the lab working on analyzing breast cancer cell migration, which mainly involved intently staring at the computer for hours at a time in order to manually track the positions and movement of hundreds of breast cancer cells. I had previous experience using the analysis software and didn’t mind doing the work in order to free up a labmate’s time to perform other experiments. In addition, my contribution to the project meant that I would be listed as an author on the paper, which will look good when I later apply for scholarships and fellowships.

This past week added further procrastination in the form mouse tissue processing and flow cytometry analysis for the lab’s traumatic brain injury project. This work took 2 days this week, each day starting at 6AM and finishing between 8:30-10PM. I was not asked, but offered to help with this work because I knew how much time it would require and I wanted to alleviate the workload of my colleagues. I also earned valuable experience that will be utilized later for my project. Each person in the lab assisted with at least some of the work over those 2 days, allowing everyone to take breaks as needed and step out for other time commitments. I was very impressed with how willing everyone was to step up with their time and help out wherever they could. These were long days, but there was always someone there talk to or go to if you needed help. We have one more long day next week, and I hope the work that day goes even smoother than the two this past week.

I need to perform one more set of analyses in order to complete the manuscript for the breast cancer cell migration studies. I’m hoping to be able to complete that work this week, but it will depend on how much of my time is needed for everything else I’m involved in right now.

I feel tired, but I don’t feel exhausted, meaning I’ll use this weekend to take a break, but I don’t want to stop helping with other’s research projects. I don’t mind how I’m spending my time now, but I’m concerned about draining myself by working so long on other people’s research projects. I have made a commitment to help and I will stick to that, but I’m hoping these side projects finish soon so that I can start preparing for the project I’m going to spend the next 3-4 years working on.

It may be that completing a PhD is less like running one marathon, and more like having one marathon for each project you’re involved in. You spend time assisting with other’s projects, helping run their marathons for a short time, while continuing to participate in the paramount marathon of completing your dissertation. The goal is to still be alive at the finish line.

It Is Never Too Early To Start Looking

I am very fortunate to be part of an institution which offers a multitude of career development seminars and workshops, and I attend as many of them as I can. I am typically one of the youngest attendees, but I go to listen, ask questions, and, let’s be honest, eat free food. Presentations at these events can range from alumni returning to discuss their myriad career paths, to international representatives attempting to recruit skilled researchers to their country.

I admit, my enjoyment of these productions is highly dependent on the speaker’s ability to hold my attention and present useful/relevant information. Some have felt like a waste of time, but others have offered insights into career paths I had never considered and maybe didn’t even know existed.

I view these seminars, workshops, and symposia as a shotgun approach to figuring out what I want to do with my life. I have no idea what careers are going to interest me in 4 years, when I’m [hopefully] finishing up my doctorate, but I want to be aware of as many options as possible leading up to that point. We all ask ourselves questions when deciding on a next step in our lives: What do I want to be doing day-to-day? Where do I want to be living? Who do I want to be working with? Do I want to work as part of the group or lead the group? How long do I see myself there? Is it a permanent placement or a step to something better? How do I get there? Do I know someone who can help me?

I know that when I’m ready to find answers to these questions, I will be so distracted and busy with finishing up my research/degree that I won’t have the time/energy to get an accurate assessment of my options. I am creating a Rolodex in my head of career paths I find interesting, while also recognizing which ones will be unlikely to make me happy. Additionally, the people giving these presentations are often a resource to entering their field, which can be utilized when you’re ready to transition out of graduate school.

This past week, I attended the TMC Annual Postdoctoral Career Symposium. This all-day event features panels about many of the career paths now available to individuals with a PhD. Each panel is made up of people in those fields who spend an hour discussing their jobs and answering questions from the audience. The panels I attended included consulting, entrepreneurship, pharma, and women in leadership, as well as a presentation from the Director of TMCx, the innovation hub at TMC started a few years ago for researchers/entrepreneurs interested in bringing their technologies to the clinic. Panels I did not attend (merely for lack of time) included non-profit organizations, intellectual property, academia, and governmental research, as well as a few others. This event is unique in its efforts to expose students and trainees to as many career paths as possible in a single day.

In unrelated activities, but still following the theme of seeking out career opportunities, this past week I also participated in Science Night (pictured above), a free annual event hosted by MD Anderson Cancer Center which introduces community children (aged 4-17, though most are 9-11 years old) to basic scientific concepts, many of which are the fundamentals to the biomedical research being performed at MD Anderson and throughout the medical center.

The event offers activities ranging from DNA isolation to wave formation with gummy bear ladders, to get children interested in science. I helped at the table organized by the Biochemistry & Cell Biology PhD program. We explained what stem cells were and how they were unique because they could turn into almost any cell in the body, showing images of cardiac, muscle, neural, and other cell types. Children were then given balls of playdough, symbolizing stem cells, and were challenged to make the different cell types shown. Some kids made the simplest-shaped cell (typically a muscle cell) and left, but others stuck around to meticulously shape every cell type shown.

I don’t think that every child in attendance will grow up to be a scientist, but at least they now know about all the amazing things they could do if they did.

Getting My Footing

I stress bake… a lot… which my classmates and colleagues are figuring out because I brought them macarons last week and mini cupcakes today. I find that baking and cooking utilize the same prinicples as my scientific work, but I tend to be successful in the kitchen far more than I am in the lab. However, I could never pick up a chef’s hat full-time because I want it to stay as my decompression rather than have it become a responsibility. Unfortunately now, when I get the urge to bake/cook, I take a step back and try to figure out what is stressing me out.

For the past couple of weeks, I have been waking up at 5:30AM, getting to the lab by 6:30AM, and working until 5:30 or 6PM, at which point I either go to the gym or an evening event; I am usually home by 7:30. So long as I get enough sleep, this schedule hasn’t felt like it’s causing me any additional stress, and I’ve actually been productive in my time before class. My problem is that I feel like a boring person for not having anything to do outside of the lab or class. I volunteer with organizations when I have time and I keep telling myself that my social circle is expanding, but it never feels like I’m living the life that others think I should have in my situation.

I am very introverted and feel like I need extensive time alone to work up the energy to be surrounded by people at school/work. At the same time, I feel like I use my introvertedness as an excuse to not be social, not go out with friends, and generally stay home. I decorated my home so it would always feel welcoming, safe, and relaxing, so I find it very comfortable to spend much of my time there. When I’m home, Clooney (AKA the adorable fuzzball pictured above) keeps me company so it never feels like I’m entirely alone, but my house is usually very quiet.

To be honest, there’s no real purpose or conclusion to writing all of this. I was hoping I could convince myself to go out more and meet more people but, at this point, I’m too tired and I don’t make near enough money to spend on frivolities. At least I now make a pretty darn impressive macaron.

As for my actual graduate education, I am finishing up my fellowship applications, which are due at the end of this month, and am presenting my research from this past summer at a regional symposium next week. Thankfully, my work keeps me so busy I have no extra time to deal with my insecurities.

This week’s lectures in class actually made sense, for the most part, which is the first time all year that has happened. Granted, I’ve heard we were not prepared well for the homework, so that should be a draining use of my time this weekend.

Essentially, I feel like I’m starting to get the hang of the grad student lifestyle, but nobody will tell me whether I’m doing it right or not.

My New Normal

Everything post-Harvey has been a bit of a whirlwind. We missed the last day of orientation and the entire first week of classes due to the storm and its aftermath. The school has been scrambling to make up the missed information sessions while trying to aid students, faculty, and staff affected by the storm, and trying to officially start the school year.

As a 1st year student (and someone who was fortunate to have been relatively spared by Harvey),  I’ve been kept busy with class, introductions to the different specialization programs offered by the PhD program, and my efforts to finish my research project from the summer. I hoped to finish everything related to my summer research before our fall rotation starts next week, but my confidence in that deadline grows smaller by the day.

Lab rotations offer students a chance to try out 3-4 different laboratories before choosing one to do their PhD project in, allowing students to “test drive” the research, leadership, and environment of each lab. As most students will be spending 3+ years in their chosen lab, it’s imperative that it be an environment conducive to production, morale, and education, while involving a research project that can hold the student’s interest throughout that time.

My rotation this fall will be in a lab that I became very familiar with during my work this summer when they bailed my unprepared butt out on many an occasion. I am looking forward to my work with them and getting experience with a new project, the details of which have yet to be worked out.

I was hoping for a slower start to the year but each day seems to pile on more responsibilities, homework, deadlines, and events, leaving me waiting for a chance to get my feet back on the ground. I know it’s only going to get worse, so my complaints probably won’t let up for a while. Sorry.

I need to take a breather every now and again, whether it be going for a workout or just stepping outside into the sun for a while. It feels like the sun is ever-present after Harvey, bringing beautiful weather that Houston would have been much happier with than a 5-day storm.

I have tried to do what I can in terms of relief efforts but it never seems like enough. At least one of the major shelters still has a couple thousand people staying there and is expected to stay at that occupancy for the next couple weeks. With the rest of us going back to school and work, trying to get back our new version of “normal”, this shelter and many of the other relief organizations are putting out calls for volunteers. The Houston Food Bank, the largest food bank in the country, both by size and area served, is asking for a few hundred volunteers a day to help put together the food and necessities packages to be immediately distributed in the community. I volunteered there on Monday and with 30 people, in 2.5 hours, we put together 1600 packages of meals for hungry schoolchildren to help feed their families over the weekend.

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The Houston Food Bank warehouse is 308,000 sq ft and provides food, water, and other necessities to people in 28 Texas counties.

Today, we were assigned a homework based on our recent lectures on epigenetics that I’ve been warned will take most of the weekend; it’s only Tuesday and I already have something to look forward to for Saturday.