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”**

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.

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.

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.